By Sameer Kolpekwar
Dreams are an alternate world to our reality. Famed psychologist Sigmund Freud described dreams as a way for humans to experience their deepest desires—those that they could not fulfil in real life. However, often we are left wondering what we dreamt about at night. Neuroscientists and sleep scientists are now working on developing technologies that would allow us to record our dreams, and later play them back—the way we look at images or movies.
The greatest challenge to realising this idea is the process of “extracting” the dream from the human brain. Numerous studies done on dreaming and sleep suggest that theoretically, we should be able to extract dreams from our brains.
How did scientists come up with idea of recording dreams?
In 2011, researchers in a study at Gallant Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, showed the study’s participants videos, such as movie trailers, and later reconstructed the visuals from signals obtained from their brain activity.
The reconstructed video was low-resolution and consisted of rough patterns. However, the scientists improved their technology and published a follow-up study in 2016, CNN reported. The ability to reconstruct images from brain activity aroused interest in dream researchers and sleep scientists, who wondered if dreams could be recorded similarly.
The technology to visualise data obtained from our brain is being continuously developed and honed. In April 2017, a study conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, identified a part of the brain associated with dreaming. According to the researchers involved in the study, the ‘posterior cortical hot zone’ could help identify if a person is dreaming or not. The hot zone usually has a low-frequency activity associated with it. However, when a person is dreaming, the zone experiences high-frequency activity. Researchers believe that this area of the brain can act as a switch or a light, to indicate if a person is dreaming. In their study, scientists also discovered that parts of the brain responsible for various actions in the awake state functioned similarly in the dream state.
Another study being conducted at the University of Texas showed similar results. The researchers at the university’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab are using an electromyogram to record nerve impulses in the dream state. The results are promising, and state that the brain works similarly during waking hours and when dreaming. Movements performed in dreams such as walking or moving arms do not happen physically, yet the nerve impulses reach the respective regions of the brain. The researchers are also studying the movements of the mouth and lips to see if similar deductions can be made about speech
What do you need to record dreams?
Recording dreams is the intersection of computer science and neuroscience. The technology to record the activity of the brain is continuously evolving. However a major obstacle is visualising the data obtained and making a sense of it. Yukiyasu Kamitani at Kyoto University believes that the problem can be solved by using big data analytics and artificial intelligence algorithms to decode the data.
Kamitani has successfully used fMRI(functional magnetic resonance imaging) which detects brain activity by looking at blood flow, to reconstruct the images from the data obtained. This data relates to brain activity during the wakeful state. His 2013 study used machine learning and fMRI to show that the brain shows same patterns for visual experiences during the wakeful and the sleep state. He believes that this technology could also be used for reconstructing images of dreams.
Yet another researcher, Moran Cerf, an assistant professor at the Northwestern University, is working on inserting implants inside the brains of patients undergoing neurosurgery. This would help them obtain data from specific parts of the brain. The researchers working on this experiment have been able to obtain a summary of the topic of dreams that people have, and are hoping to further expand on it.
How lucid are you?
Researchers are also studying lucid dreamers. Lucid dreaming is a state where dreamers are aware and able to control the outcome of their dreams. Scientists are using lucid dreamers to perform specific actions, such as clenching fists or walking, to determine which areas of the brain light up or activate.
Kamitani also employs the most primitive method of recording dreams, in which patients’ brain activity is recorded, and they are periodically woken up and asked what they dreamt about. The method is simple and he has already catalogued a large amount of data, which when run through a neural network can be used to recognise patterns. Most of the work in regards to technology and equipment has been focused towards collecting and interpreting data about the brain activity, when a person is dreaming.
There are still many challenges when it comes to recording our dreams. Almost all of the research till now has only yielded results when working with visual data. Max Dresler from the Max Plank Institute of Psychiatry has tried to work with sound. However, the fMRI machine makes so much sound that any activity with respect to sound in the brain would be related to the machine. Another problem is the fact that the brain works differently while awake, when compared to during the sleep state. Therefore, to compare brain activity while awake and sleeping might not be the best measure to go forward.
Kamitani also highlighted the problem of accuracy while decoding the data—the subjects cannot often remember what they dreamt about—which makes measuring the accuracy of device’s interpretation difficult.
Forget data, governments could start spying on your dreams
The prospect of recording and replaying one’s dreams might be a tempting one but scientists are wary of the impacts of their research. People may learn more about themselves by looking at their dreams. However, they may also become over-dependant on dreams.. Cerf also predicts that if recording dreams can be achieved, hacking them would also be possible.
The most harmless use would be companies advertising their products. However, one can also imagine government agencies using it as interrogation technique, which further creates doubts about the safety of people’s private data.
Despite the enormous number of challenges and gloomy predictions, Kamitani and other researchers remain optimistic about the future. They expect simple machines, which can tell you what you dreamt about, to be a reality in a year or two. However, they don’t think it would visualise your dreams. The more advanced tech is expected to be along the lines of sensor-embedded sleepwear, which would record your dreams and then convert it into a playable movie. Researchers believe that this could likely become a reality in a decade.