Ever experience a truly surreal dream, one that is so vivid and believable that you wish you could share it with others? Would you like to capture the wild and often mysterious visuals appearing throughout a night’s sleep? Scientists across the globe have been researching methods for analyzing brain activity in an effort to view, record, and predict dream states, bringing the possibility a little closer to reality.
Record and Share
Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley have developed a technique for capturing the visual activity in our brains and re-creating it as digital video footage. The scientists used 3 of their own colleagues as subjects for the experiments. The rationale for this was in part due to the need for participants to be inside a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) system for several hours at a time.
The participants were exposed to different segments of movie trailers as the fMRI system recorded their brain activity. These data were then fed into a computer system that processed and decoded the brain activity generated by viewing the trailers, connecting shapes and motion information from the movies to specific activities occurring in the brain. As additional sessions took place, the computer was able to obtain an increasing amount of information, learning more about the visual activity and the correlation between the brain and the visual stimuli.
Once the computer system completed compiling this information, the team then sourced additional videos from YouTube to reconstruct the videos originally shown to the test subjects. The computer analyzed several million seconds of this footage, constructing a database of potential brain activity for each and every clip. Using the computer system, the researchers chose clips most in line with the activity experienced by the test subjects by comparing and analyzing the data from the subjects and the videos. Videos rendered from the YouTube videos, while not what the subject was actually seeing, included small bits of footage, essentially a montage of imagery that was of the same scope. With a larger database of material to reference, coupled with a substantial amount of computer processing power, the system could theoretically reconstruct any images in the brain.
Predicting What’s on Your Mind
Another team of Japanese scientists at Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute, located in Kyoto, have learned how to interpret your dreams by measuring brain activity. They built a machine capable of analyzing neurological patterns, and tested their theory on 3 research participants. They were able to successfully predict the sleep time visualization with 60% accuracy. The concept is fairly straightforward. Any time we visualize objects in our minds, a neural pattern is generated. By recording these patterns and associating them with the stimuli that triggered them, we in theory should be able to predict what is being visualized at any moment in time by comparing these patterns.
The study was performed on 3 participants who took turns sleeping in an fMRI scanner for several hours at a time over the span of 10 days. Each subject was wired to an electroencephalograph to monitor the electrical activity in the brain, which is used to determine each specific stage of sleep. The monitored activities in the brain were uploaded to a computer periodically.
Each test subject was woken up once scientists verified they had entered the first stage of sleep using the fMRI machine. Upon immediately coming out of the dream state, they were asked to describe their dreams, and to provide insight into what they had seen. This method of sleeping, waking, and journaling of information was repeated well over 200 times for each participant. Using a system of synsets, or categories of similar words, to describe those images, participants ranked them on their importance. Those that were ranked highest were used as the label for that synset. A good example of this is listing several words, such as structure, building, house, hotel, or motel, with the highest-ranked term used to classify those descriptive words.
The team then presented this material to the participants while they were awake and again while asleep in the MRI machine. They then compared the information to the previously recorded data that were acquired during the participants’ sleep sessions. By performing these comparative actions, the team was able to isolate the brain activity patterns associated with those objects from unrelated ones. An algorithm was created using the data acquired from all the previous testing, which was then used to determine what a particular participant experienced in their dream state. The participants were invited back into the fMRI machine to test the algorithm.
The system recorded the information being generated by the participants’ sleep activity and generated videos, producing groups of related images and selecting those it determined the individuals might be seeing. Upon waking, the participants were asked to describe what they had seen and, amazingly, the machine was able to predict an astonishing 60% of what they saw in their dream states.
Although these methods are still in their early phases, it’s a glimpse into what is to come in the future. Recording, watching, and sharing dreams, and the allure of possibly recording some of our most amazing thoughts for our own use, is quite exciting. Soon you may be able to replay your dreams at any time and never have to worry about forgetting what happened. Now all we need is a method for interpreting the meaning of dreams.
- Diaz J. Scientists reconstruct brains’ visions into digital video in historic experiment. Gizmodo website. September 22, 2011. http://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clips-from-brain-activity.
- Freeman O. The dream-reading machine. The Brain Bank website. April 27, 2013. http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2013/04/27/the-dream-reading-machine/.
- Nelson B. Scientists learn how to record your dreams and play them back to you. Mother Nature Network website. April 5, 2013. http://www.mnn.com/green-tech/research-innovations/stories/scientists-learn-how-to-record-your-dreams-and-play-them#.
- Stromberg, J. Scientists figure out what you see while you’re dreaming. Smithsonian website. April 4, 2013. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/scientists-figure-out-what-you-see-while-youre-dreaming-15553304/?no-ist.