It was 4am, and the headband strapped to my skull woke me up chanting a series of winter-related words. “Christmas. Soup. Pasture. Eternal.” It was part of a cognitive exercise that was supposed to distract my brain. The purpose of this babel was to give me peace of mind to help me fall asleep, but instead, it woke me up three hours before my alarm. I double tapped my head, silencing the voice, tore the device off, and shoved it in my nightstand. That morning my phone would ask me why it stopped collecting my sleep data so soon.
The headband in question is called Dreem, a device designed to help you sleep better while collecting a wealth of data about your sleep, such as your brain waves and heart rate. It also uses “special bone conduction technology” to disseminate sound through your forehead and into your inner ear. The headband fits, albeit not incredibly comfortably, and aside from glitching out the first night, the device functioned as it’s supposed to. The accompanying Dreem app is easy to use, showing you your Sleep Score (more on that shortly), sleep duration, sleep onset, deep sleep improvement, position changes, and heart rate. It also lets you set an alarm and choose from a number of different sleep techniques, like breathing exercises and guided meditation. I still slept like shit while wearing it.
I wasn’t supposed to. The Dreem claims it improves sleep—it even says it has clinical studies, but as Julie Kientz, an Associate Professor in the department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at the University of Washington, noted, those studies aren’t actually published anywhere. “While it’s great that Dreem has spent significant effort focusing on comfort, it’s hard to know whether it’s accurate without evidence from a peer-reviewed clinical trial,” she told Gizmodo.
Kientz’s other concern was with Dreem’s Sleep Score, given that the user doesn’t really get much context on how that “score” is determined. “In our own research, we found that generic ‘sleep score’ feedback without transparency in how that score is calculated can be confusing to end users and lead them to try and optimize a score that may not have much impact on their overall sleep health.”
Not a promising start, but going into this review half of me still really wanted it to work. I’ve tried a lot of things to sleep better, yet for some reason, the quiet whisper in my brain that we are deeply fucked cannot be quieted by even the silkiest of sleep masks. So the promise of better sleep by strapping a control center to my skull intrigued me.
But there was the other half of me that, despite being desperate for a good night’s sleep, didn’t want it to work. At least not in its current iteration. It’s hard to picture a world in which everyone relies on a dorky-looking headband that emits pink noise into their brain as a means to get some decent shut eye. Picture, for a moment, bringing a one-night stand home, and, with no explanation, slipping on a headband that chants “Christmas. Soup. Pasture. Eternal” postcoitus. That’s a potential future I’m sure to lose sleep over.
The first night with Dreem, I secured the headband to my forehead, one strip running right above my eyebrows, the other over the top of my head. There are a number of sensors along the device to capture and analyze your brain activity. Once I had synced my headband up with the accompanying app via Bluetooth, I was able to watch my brainwaves soaring across my phone screen in real time. But as Kientz noted earlier, while it was fascinating to watch my neural activity in realtime on my iPhone, it meant nothing to me. Sure, when it flatlined when I took the headband off, I understood that was because it wasn’t sending any brain activity to the device. But beyond that, the wave patterns on my screen were utterly meaningless. In the absence of education on what the squiggles meant, it’s a gimmick.
I then crawled into bed—headband on—and adjusted the settings on the app, choosing the aforementioned cognition exercise. To adjust the volume or turn the device on or off, you simply tap or slide your fingers across the control center on top of your head. I then tried to get cozy with this new sleep partner attached to my face. I usually sleep on my side or stomach, but both options were a little awkward with the headband on, so I resorted to sleeping on my back. I guess in the future everyone sleeps groins to the heavens.
That first night didn’t go well, and while the headband didn’t glitch out on me on my second night, I still struggled to get a good night’s rest. For the second night I tried the breathing exercise. It was pretty nice. I just had to breathe along with the sound of someone exhaling. I felt relaxed, but after what felt like an eternity of breathing later, was still very much awake. I double tapped my skull to turn the exercise off and tried to fall asleep in silence. But I caught myself waking up every hour or two.
It wasn’t that the headband was so outrageously uncomfortable, but it was just uncomfortable enough to keep me from slipping into a deep slumber. When I woke up for the third or fourth time, it was 5am, about two hours before I needed to get up. I was exhausted. As much as I wanted to see this night through with Dreem, I also wanted to get in a few hours of uninterrupted sleep before a day of blogging. I took it off, once again prompting my app to question why it stopped collecting my sleep data earlier than anticipated. Because I’m tired, man. I’m so tired.
In theory, Dreem should be a dream. It’s designed by Yves Behar, who has become a go to designer over the years for startups. You can see Behar’s influence in the minimalist lines of the headband. But one should not confuse cool minimalism with comfort. Ergonomic my ass. While it did fit my head, it didn’t fit it comfortably. And that alone should render a product made for sleeping unusable. It’s no wonder sleep researchers struggle to collect comprehensive data: people don’t want to sleep with sensors on.
Dreem is supposed to help boost your sleep quality, and if wearing uncomfortable sensors doesn’t bother you, then you can drop $500 on it now. But as I’m writing this, I’m exhausted. For $500, Dreem is not worth the cost. For free, it’s not worth the cost. All I really wanted was to wake up feeling a little more rested than usual, or perhaps to just fall asleep a little faster. Instead, I tossed and turned. My roommate laughed at me. And then I got to check out all my sleep data, only to learn what I already knew: I need to get some goddamn sleep.
- It was cool to watch my brain activity!
- ...but I’m not really sure how to interpret the fluctations
- I can be tired for free