Friday, April 5, 2013

Dream captures

They're at it again. There's a report from Japan that brain scans can predict dream images that are confirmed when subjects are wakened from "light sleep" inside an MRI. It seems this is accomplished by comparing brain signals characteristic of the waking brain with those of the dozing brain. So if a certain pattern of brain activity appears if you are looking at traffic or reading text while awake, it's a reasonable guess that's what you are doing when the same pattern comes up during sleep. The Japanese have recorded some blurry images suggestive of generic dream content.
    The Japanese researchers don't claim to be at the point of reading minds, or even of capturing "deep dreams", which they associate with REM states. But some neuroscientists aren’t slow to tell us all that is coming. Dreams are just “an extension of brain states”, says one of them, so full capture may come with advancing technology. I don’t think so. The full panoply of dream experience will always escape the laboratory, because in dreaming consciousness travels beyond the body and the brain.
     We could reach a point, however, where neuroscientists claim to be able to tell us exactly what people are dreaming (and thinking). That could breed terrible delusions of control. Add to the mix new technologies that will give people more and more options for sinking their imaginations in corporate-generated virtual realities, and you have the stuff of very scary science fiction.
    Happily, the mind is not in the brain. The brain is in the mind, and the mind is nonlocal.
    As for the MRI. I don't understand how anyone could sleep inside one. It would be like trying to sleep in a tumble dryer. When I requested an MRI years ago (because I wanted to learn first hand how this works) I had horrific wakeful images of a hostile tribe attacking me with spears, as depicted in my drawing. They didn't find anything unusual in my scan, though I really don’t go around seeing spear-waving savages on the street every day.
    They'll never capture the dreams that matter in a sleep lab. To get to the good stuff, you must go where the wild things are. That's truly a no-brainer.

Due diligence: A friend involved in MRI research clarifies the technology involved in the Japanese study: "There are short-bore head magnets, so in principle there is no need to stuff the whole person into the tube. Falling asleep is also possible, if the subject has very good ear protection to block out the noise. The subject, of course, needs to have nerves of steel to fall asleep in this situation, so there may be a selection bias from the outset."

Drawing "In the Sonic Washer" (c) Robert Moss


Savannah said...

I read this yesterday too and always have mixed feelings about these kinds of attempts to quantify the mystery. The really good stuff of human experience will always escape the laboratory; if it were otherwise, it probably wouldn't be worth taking to the lab in the first place. Creatively speaking, there's also too much to be said for writing from the twilight rhythms on first waking for me to have much interest in being able to press play on my dreams in the morning even if that could be done -- but since I work in complex rehab services my mind immediately turned to potentially useful applications in assistive technology instead which can be a helpful piece in supporting greater access and participation. This all sounds a long way away from having useful applications but over the past fifteen years I've observed that while the media nearly always lather up premature excitement about new technologies, sometimes the developers do catch up :-).

Robert Moss said...

Thanks for that most interesting comment about possible applications in rehab situations, Savannah. You are probably quite right about premature media hype for new technologies.

Louisa said...

Here is why these people are celebrating: they've just teased an elusive effect out of very noisy data obtained from just THREE volunteers. Here is why this result is important: it suggests that the brain uses the same hardware to handle images that exist outside a person's mind and inside it, i.e., information that is usually called "real" and "imaginary". This might shed light on a variety of interesting problems of perception, visualization, placebo effect, and so on. Here is why the media crows about it: they need a story. As for actually recording dreams, this will never happen with MRI: the signal is too tiny and the noise is too high.

Robert Moss said...

Thanks for your clarity, Louisa!

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James Wilson said...

Robert I think you're right that we always have to be careful with technology.
Every technological development can be exploited if the wrong kind of people become interested in it.
But I think there are positive sides to this technology. Literally reading someone’s dreams will probably never be possible.
But the following that I have read in the article is interesting. That is, that they can figure out what kind of theme someone has dreamed about. For example about men, women, tools, books or cars.
If it is technologically possible to look up the next day, what theme you have dreamed about at night ( for example tools) you can use this knowledge to try to remember your dream through exercises. An exercise with the image of a tool as starting point.
In the future this technology could ( if it becomes more consumer-friendly) become an additional tool for the dream archeologist next to his pen, notebook and dream agenda.

Robert Moss said...

James - Thanks for putting a further positive spin on this. My first instinct is that it is rather unlikely that someone could call back an authentic dream experience by being told - with a blurry image - that they dreamed of a car or a house. But for those who have been suffering a prolonged dream drought and also need a physical object or what looks like hard science to validate that something is possible, this could indeed be a usable prompt.