Monday, April 08, 2013. From Print Edition
Talk about mind reading. Researchers have discovered a potential way to decode your dreams, predicting the content of the visual imagery you’ve experienced on the basis of neural activity recorded during sleep.
Visual experiences you have when dreaming are detectable by the same type of brain activity that occurs when looking at actual images when you’re awake, the small new study suggests. The scientists created decoding computer programs based on brain activity measured while wide-awake study participants looked at certain images. Then, right after being awakened from the early stages of sleep, the researchers asked the subjects to describe the dream they were having before being disturbed.
The researchers used functional MRI to monitor brain activity of the participants and polysomnography to record the physical changes that occur during sleep. They compared evidence of brain activity when participants were awake and looking at real images to the brain activity they saw when participants were dreaming, when they were in light — or early — sleep. Functional MRIs directly measure blood flow in the brain, providing information on brain activity. Published in the journal Science, the study shows it may be possible to use brain activity patterns to understand something about what a person is dreaming about, according to Yukiyasu Kamitani, lead author and head of neuroinformatics at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto, Japan.
“Our current approach requires the data of image viewing and sleep within the same [person],” Kamitani said. “But there are methods being developed for aligning brain patterns across people. It may become possible to build a decoder that works for different people with a small amount of data for calibration.” While the research may conjure up images of science fiction movies — such as aliens from another planet finding a way to reveal our most private mental activities — there are practical applications to the research, Kamitani said.
“There is evidence suggesting that the pattern of spontaneous brain activity is relevant to health issues, including psychiatric disorders,” Kamitani explained. “Our method could relate spontaneous brain activity to waking experience, potentially providing clues for better interpretations of [brain activity].” The research involved only three participants, who, over seven or 10 sleep “experiences,” were awakened and asked for a visual report a minimum of 200 times each. The authors gave an example of what a study participant said when awakened: “Yes, well, I saw a person. It was something like a scene. I hid a key in a place between a chair and a bed, and someone took it.” Researchers then compared the participant’s description to the functional MRI activity pattern before awakening. This pattern was put through a machine learning decoder assisted by vocabulary and image databases. The system’s prediction identified a man, a key, a bed and a chair, which compared closely to the participant’s immediate report.
The researchers chose to awaken the subjects in light sleep rather than in deeper “rapid eye movement” (REM) sleep solely to make the research easier to do. Kamitani said that because it takes at least an hour to reach first REM stage, it would be difficult to get sleep and dream data from multiple participants. “REM dreams may contain richer contents, so we are interested in decoding REM dreams in the future,” he said. Although this study doesn’t help identify why people dream, it could potentially be useful in advancing understanding, Kamitani said.
Could we one day know what someone else is thinking while they are awake? Would you be interested in using technology that tells you what your dog or your child is dreaming about?! Or do you think science is going too far?