Real Inception?

Dreams fascinate us. You could even say we’re obsessed with them. There are films, television shows and books devoted to traversing and unraveling dreamlands and their mysterious qualities.

Photo by Corinna Scott.
Photo by Corinna Scott.

Dreams fascinate us. You could even say we’re obsessed with them. There are films, television shows and books devoted to traversing and unraveling dreamlands and their mysterious qualities.

Since the advent of modern technology and psychology, decoding dreams has been something of a quiet priority. From what I understand, the only way we can remember our dreams is to wake up in the middle of them, when our brains are still trying to create the subconscious images that our waking minds aren’t quite capable of producing.

However, all that could soon change. Scientists in Japan may have found the secret to unlocking the world of dreams for the waking. According to the South China Morning Post, researchers at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto have begun using magnetic resonance imaging scans to study which parts of the brain are active during sleep.

The study, published in Science, explained that test subjects were only allowed to sleep for a short period of time. After falling asleep, the subject would be woken up and asked to describe the images they’d seen. Each test subject did this 200 times. These “brain maps” were then compared to scans produced by the MRI, effectively “decoding” the dreams.

“We have concluded that we successfully decoded some kinds of dreams with a distinctively high success rate,” Yukiyasu Kamitani, head of the research team, told the South China Morning Post. He added that this is a “key step [toward] reading dreams more precisely.”

The process is much simpler than you’d think. After the test subjects are woken up, they are asked to describe the images they dreamed about. The images are then sorted categorically. Then, as the MRI machine scans their brains, the subjects look at images of these same things. Via a computer algorithm, the image-based scan is matched up to the MRI scan, which then allows scientists to match brain activity and figure out what the subjects dreamed about.

Apparently, this process also gives researchers an idea of what participants are dreaming about 60 percent of the time.

Interestingly, researchers found that “the same parts of the brain are used to process visual patterns, whether the person is awake or asleep,” according to the South China Morning Post.

This could explain the visceral nature of many of our dreams.

If you’re a Tumblr user, chances are you saw a certain video making its way around the Internet in the last week. The video showed the brain activity of a small zebrafish over the course of about two minutes. It’s very similar to the results that Kamitani and the rest of the team found in their study’s human participants.

While human brain activity is more complex—at least we hope it is—the same idea applies. The brain activity seen onscreen allows scientists to gain some understanding of what the fish is looking at.

Fascinating, yes, but not everyone shares the same opinion. In a segment on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, Jack Gallant, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkeley, said that “in psychology and neuroscience, there’s been 100 years of argument about whether dreams are important or unimportant.”

It’s not uncommon to hear scientists and researchers state that dreams aren’t important and that what we dream about is usually just remnants of things we think about during our waking hours. Conversely, some claim that dreams are prophetic.

Gallant makes a good point, and you might agree that dreams are flighty and not necessarily the best way to map out brain activity. But this study’s process isn’t the final solution to decoding dreams.

Another counterpoint is that MRI scans aren’t the most reliable source for showing brain activity. An article on dream decoding published on the Extreme Tech website explains that MRI scans “do not directly access neural activity,” rather, they show “a signal derived from blood flow [that] changes only peripherally [when] linked to activity, and on a much slower timescale than actual neural spiking.”

While Kamitani and the other scientists working on this project have a long way to go, how cool is it that there is finally a little bit of science behind our dreams? It might not be accurate as of yet, but it’s a first step in understanding how the mind works at rest.

Gallant may have downplayed the importance of dreams in his statements, but isn’t understanding the brain more important than his personal biases? If we’re able to map brain activity and various functions through studying dreams, think of what it could contribute to neuroscience as a whole.

We’re a long way away from Inception, but who knows—maybe 50 years down the road we’ll be holding dream tours or conducting secret government operations within dreamscapes.