Ever wondered what Google, Frankenstein, insulin and the theory of relativity have in common? Other than being some of our greatest creations and discoveries, they have all arisen from the swampy nether of the sleeping brain. Some of the humanity’s most celebrated achievements were, literally, products of dreams. Ironically enough, the underlying mechanism of sleep and dreaming was dreamt up too, amongst a vast greatness of other, surprisingly numerous, slumbersome discoveries. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could consciously immerse ourselves in this elusive underworld of dreams, exploring our hidden genius and treating a neurological disorder or two along the way? As frightening as this may sound, we may no longer be as distant from such a reality as we’d perhaps like to think.
And the reason for this is simple: as of late, we have gotten exceptionally nifty at invading the mind. Several neurotechnology leaps ago it was 1973 and doctors had to painfully drain blood vessels in the brain in order to X-ray the empty spaces left behind. Today, 20 minutes inside a non-invasive functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner is all it can take to unveil our emotional state, mood, and even basic thought. Combine this with other neuro-imaging techniques such as diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG) and positron emission tomography (PET) and neuroscience can now paint a pretty picture of our brains’ inner workings, detecting and treating psychological trauma and mental disease and exposing our deeply-rooted emotional responses to anything from our favorite show to our next-door neighbor.
The latest breakthroughs in fMRI imaging have been the most striking. Recently neuroscientists were able to “communicate” with patients previously believed to be long comatose by detecting activity spikes in brain areas responsible for visual processing, emotion, and so on, which are otherwise un-translated into visible signs of consciousness. A step further from this practice is actual visual “decoding” – reading and replicating vision from brain scans. In a series of visual decoding experiments, volunteers were asked to watch short clips inside an fMRI scanner. Scientists then used the external output to replicate clips of what the person was seeing. The incredibly discernible [see video], albeit unpolished, fMRI output attests to one frightfully simple fact: mind reading is at our doorstep. Whether we like it or not, growing data samples and meticulous calibration will continue to yield increasingly accurate brain reads until we can stream brains onto television screens.
But no need to panic just yet. The level of accuracy required to breach our darkest secrets is certainly a long way away, but this hasn’t stopped the neuro-inquisitive from exploring all possible applications of our newfound mindreading ability. The subconscious is perhaps the ideal candidate for this, for the simple reason that we still seriously lack reliable psychoanalytical tools for penetrating such an elusive realm.
And what better starting point for this than dreaming. Dreams are so mysterious, liberating, frightening, life-changing and sometimes so outright odd that for centuries we have speculated on their message to no definitive avail. The famous “Interpretation of Dreams” by Sigmund Freud is a book of psychoanalysis and controversy, offering at times outlandish interpretations of shapes and figures inhabiting the dozing mind. According to Freud, “Dreams are the royal road to the unconscious”, revealing glimpses of a secluded backdoor unbeknownst even to its beholder, but, on a large scale, riddled with sex symbolism and fueled by carnal instincts. Met with much skepticism, to this day “Interpretation of dreams” is lying in wait of more compelling evidence, something which our ever-expanding neurotech prowess is likely to soon afford.
If we were to trust the importance Freud attributed to dreaming, one can only imagine the untapped potential lurking in obscure cranial crevasses, offering anything from hugely ameliorated psychotherapy to unleashing hidden genius.
In the sphere of dream research, impressive progress is steadily being made. In an a series of fMRI sleep experiments Horikawa and colleagues from ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto (Japan) caused a few seat stirs when they presented first-of-a-kind evidence of dream decoding. In what is now a peer-reviewed publication in Science, the team unveiled decoded readings of dreams achieved with an fMRI scanner much the same way as in the visual reconstruction experiments. Subjects were allowed to catch 10-minute z’s inside an fMRI scanner. As soon as they entered REM sleep, they were awoken and questioned about the content of their dreams. Scientists then scoured the internet in search of images which would match the dream description. When these images were shown to the subjects inside an fMRI scanner, the brain activity spikes they induced were surprisingly similar to the spikes detected from the subjects’ dreams. After appropriately calibrating the dream- and wake- signals, scientists scanned sleeping subjects once again, this time “decoding” the dreams and confirming their findings with the subjects, with a crude-but-impressive 60% accuracy on basic shapes and themes (ie -person, street, tree, etc).
For starters, the findings have unveiled a previously unknown fact: equivalent spikes generated in sleep and in waking suggest that dreams, like images, at least partially reside in the visual cortex (what happens in the case of blindness remains to be studied). Secondly, a 60% accuracy is certainly not bad for a first try, considering that the experiment was targeting dozens, if not hundreds of possible dream scenarios. Most importantly, the fact that calibration improves with every scan means that, when it comes to dream decoding, the only way is up. Perhaps dream reading will not go as far as to yield us downloadable dream databases every morning, but it will certainly give scientists the opportunity to study various dream patterns in disease, injury, and alongside a plethora of other parameters. And, with time, this research will doubtlessly begin to give meaning to the enigma which has vexed humanity for so long.