• Question: Are scientists working on a way to record your dreams and is that possible?

    Asked by pk1124 to Enda, Jean, Kev, Tim on 21 Nov 2012.
    • Photo: Tim Downing

      Tim Downing answered on 21 Nov 2012:

      Hi Pk1124,

      Most definitely! Lots of groups are examining this because they want to understand how our mind works. And also to examine our psychology, behaviour and subconsciousness. The question of why we dream is still unclear – what do you think?

      Researchers can determine which neurons respond to a given stimulus by examining a large number of people. So for example, they can monitor brain activity for different brain regions when each volunteers is told to imagine they are playing tennis. Although this will vary a bit from person to person, but examining many people an expected pattern can (usually) be determined. Then we can take a person who won’t tell us what they are thinking about, but by examining their brain cell activity, we can estimate whether or not they are imagining they are playing tennis.

      So by building up large amounts of surveys for imagining different things for different people, we could potentially monitor brain activity as you dream. Researchers can test the power of this approach by making hybrid pictures of two superimposed images, like the famous scientist Albert Einstein and actress Marilyn Monroe one below (ask you parents if you don’t know who they are!). The neuro-scientists can examine how brain activity changes as we focus on one image and then the other. Currently you need to have implant electrodes inside your head while this is done, but maybe a new approach will be developed?


    • Photo: Jean Bourke

      Jean Bourke answered on 21 Nov 2012:

      Hmm, there are scientist working on seeing what your mind does while you are asleep. The problem with actually recording images is that we don’t know what the person is seeing and have no way to work it out. At the moment we don’t even understand why we dream. We know that sleep is vital for life (you can die from lack of sleep but you tend to go crazy first) but we don’t really know why. The human brain is so complex that we still only barely understand it.

      If you scan the brain of someone that’s asleep you’ll see different areas of their brain “light up” which means they are currently active. This can tell us if someone is remembering or imagining or not dreaming but we can’t tell what someone is seeing. We can only kind of tell what someone is doing when we scan their brain, are they calculating, visualising, writing, talking, perhaps even lying but we cannot tell what they are calculating, seeing, talking about, writing. We can tell if they are feeling emotional but not which emotion they are feeling.

      They can use such brian scans to help people who are paralysed to communicate. The person is asked to think something over and over again, and then nothing, then something else. A machine records all this and can be trained to recognise what the person is thinking (but only which one of the two things or nothing) that allows a crude from of communication based on yes or no. Even something this simple can make a massive difference to people’s lives but it is still not standard and has taken a lot of time to develop.

      Perhaps one day we will be able to learn enough to “see” what someone is seeing in their sleep but we are a long way away.

      That’s a really good question by the way. Never been asked that before.