Could scientists peek into your dreams? (w/ video)

by Barbara Bronson Gray, Healthday Reporter
Could scientists peek into your dreams?
In small study, computer programs and brain MRIs identified visual images during sleep.

(HealthDay)—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.

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 based on brain activity measured while wide-awake looked at certain images. Then, right after being awakened from the early stages of , 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 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 in the brain, providing information on brain activity.

Published April 4 in the journal Science, the study shows it may be possible to use brain to understand something about what a person is dreaming about, according to Yukiyasu Kamitani, lead author and head of at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, in Kyoto, Japan.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.
The movie illustrates the temporal evolution of contents predicted by multilabel decoding for two individual sleep samples. Credit: Yukiyasu Kamitani, ATR

"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 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. "I believe our method may provide a tool for investigating what is the function of dreaming."

As to why it is so hard to remember a dream minutes after waking up, Kamitani said he thinks it is because particular neurotransmitters or brain regions involved in memory are not active during sleep. But he hopes his research will help explain.

"During sleep and dreaming, part of the brain—the higher visual cortex—is working as if seeing images," he said. "Since the contents of a verbal report were predicted only from brain activity immediately before awakening—zero to 15 seconds before—[it may be that we] only remember contents related to brain activity [we experience] immediately before we wake up."

While one expert said the results are intriguing, he was cautious. "The results are interesting, but in view of previous disappointments relating brain activity to complex visual experience, one would like to see this replicated," said Dr. Irwin Feinberg, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Davis.

Feinberg emphasized that the research was not designed to determine a cause-and-effect relationship. "It's a correlation of and visual experience, largely statistical and purely by association," he said. "It does not shed light on the function of sleep or the function of dreaming within sleep."

But Feinberg said the researchers' focus on non-REM sleep is interesting and valuable. "Non-REM sleep constitutes 75 percent of our sleep; REM is only 25 percent. Nature knows what it needs, so the fact that non-REM occupies such a large percentage and occurs first suggest that it is of far greater importance than is REM."

More information: "Neural Decoding of Visual Imagery During Sleep," by T. Horikawa, Science, 2013. www.sciencemag.org/content/ear… 4/03/science.1234330

Learn more about dreams and sleep from the National Sleep Foundation.

Related Stories

Scientists in sleep-wake tests decode dreams

Oct 29, 2012

What's in a dream? For Yukiyasu Kamitani, the question is important. He has been testing how dreams relate to brain activity and what really is the function of dreaming, He leads a team of researchers at the ATR Computational ...

Probing Question: What is a lucid dream?

Aug 26, 2010

Have you ever had a dream that just didn’t feel like a dream -- where, like Alice in Wonderland, you had trouble telling fiction from reality? Perhaps you even felt like you had control over what was happening, ...

Recommended for you

Obama's BRAIN initiative gets more than $300 million

4 hours ago

President Barack Obama's initiative to study the brain and improve treatment of conditions like Alzheimer's and autism was given a boost Tuesday with the announcement of more than $300 million in funds.

US aims for traumatic brain injury clinical trial success

17 hours ago

An unprecedented, public-private partnership funded by the Department of Defense (DoD) is being launched to drive the development of better-run clinical trials and may lead to the first successful treatments for traumatic ...

User comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Whydening Gyre
2 / 5 (4) Apr 04, 2013
Remember that movie with Chris Walken and Natalie Wood? Wow, this is closing in...
gwrede
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2013
It was called Brainstorm. And then there was another newer one, where they used a similar gadget to make snuff films and have other people "live" them. And of course "live" sex scenes and other stuff.

It's a shame how no matter how good and potentially useful a new invention is, it ultimately ends serving the same thing. It's really sad.
Sinister1811
1 / 5 (2) Apr 04, 2013
It's not quite Inception. But it's still interesting.
ScottyB
1 / 5 (1) Apr 05, 2013
WOOOW dream recorders! SWEET!
Moebius
3 / 5 (2) Apr 05, 2013
Never happen. Not with my dreams anyway, it would be like trying to describe everything in a typical day.