Science Channel - InSCIder

19 Jul

Should We Watch Our Dreams...Or Someone Else's?

Man asleep on his laptopThe "What Makes Us Who We Are?" episode of Through the Wormhole, which premiered on June 20, looks at an intriguing question: What aspect or aspects of human existence creates each person's individual human identity? One possibility raised in the program is that, in a sense, we are what we dream ourselves to be. I don't mean in an aspirational sense, but a literal one.

We know from a 2011 German study that dreaming — that is, the cascade of images, ideas, emotions and sensations that we experience during sleep — taps into the brain's functions in a way similar to actual waking activity. If each person — even a part of seemingly identical twins — has genetic variations that help determine individuality, it could be that dreaming provides a screen upon which those differences could be clearly seen. If you could view another person's dreams, would you be able to see precisely what it is that makes him or her unique?

Up until this point, there hasn't been any way to know, because we can't actually look into a person's brain and watch his or her dreams — or, for that matter, our own. In fact, according this interview with Dr. Robert Stickgold, a psychiatrist who heads Harvard University's Center for Sleep and Cognition, we typically remember just 10 to 15 percent of our dreams once we awaken. Back in January 2011, when I wrote this blog post, the idea of recording and playing back dreams seemed like little more than a sci-fi plot twist.

But since then, amazingly, there's been a huge breakthrough that could open the way to watching our own dreams. Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley have figured out how to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and computational models to track the brain activity that goes on during humans's visual experiences. Here's a video that shows how they were able to record the neural impulses inside research subjects' brains while they watched movie trailers, and then use that data to reconstruct the images on the screen. It's pretty mind-blowing.

Berkeley neuroscientist Jack Gallant, who co-authored an article on the work that was published in the journal Current Biology, said in a press release that the findings are "a major leap toward reconstructing mental imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds."

The technology was first tried out on conscious people, but as scientists develop more expertise at interpreting the data and reproducing mental images, it's not hard to imagine it being utilized to reconstruct sleeping subjects' dreams as well.

Once we can record and replay dreams, we might be able to finally answer the question of what dreams actually mean, and what their significance is to us. As this fascinating 2009 Scientific American piece details, some researchers theorize that nightmares may actually be an evolutionary adaptation that enabled our ancestors' brains to develop problem-solving strategies to cope with genuine, real-life threats.

But there's a potential downside as well, since the extent to which dreaming is suggestible is still unclear. In this 2002 research paper, UC Riverside philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel noted that in the first half of the 20th Century, when movies and photographs primarily were in black and white, research studies erroneously reported that people dreamed only in monchrome as well. Instead, what scientists were seeing was that exposure to media altered the content of dreams. I can testify to this effect personally: As a cartoon-watching child, I once had a dream in which I was an animated character, and a few years back had a dream that consisted of icons and apps opening and closing on a Microsoft Windows desktop. Weird, huh?

Recently,University of Hertfordshire psychology professor Richard Wiseman helped create a smart phone app that plays calming sounds, such as forest noises or waves on a beach, in an effort to influence sleepers to have pleasant, restful dreams. Once we go further and start observing our dreams and seeing them in precise detail on a screen, will it alter what goes on inside our sleeping brains? And how will that change us?

Express your opinion below. Or tell us about your own dreams that you'd like to replay. That might be even more interesting.

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