Japanese scientists work out how to ‘read’ dreams.

Scientists in Kyoto have discovered a way to recognise the visual images present in the unconscious mind during the early stages of sleep with 60% accuracy. Using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) machines, the researchers at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in western Japan, monitored the brain maps of three volunteers who were asked to fall asleep inside the scanners.

The scientists woke up the dreamers when the brain was at its most active (around every six minutes), and asked them to describe the images they had ‘seen’ during these first moments of sleep. Repeating this more than 200 times for each participant, the verbal reports were grouped into generic categories. Scientists then scanned the brains of the participants while awake, asking them to look at similar images on a computer screen. Consolidating the data from these two stages, the scientists created a computer program which was able to link the images reported by the dreamers to the maps recorded by the MRI scanner, finding correlations between the respective patterns of brain activity.

Using this, researchers could then identify the images which were or were not present in the volunteers’ unconscious minds during sleep. The results published on Thursday in the journal Science, suggested a 60% success rate, with some factors such as the presence of a male or female within the dream, over 70% accurate. This was enough to convince the scientists that they had made significant headway towards ‘reading’ dreams.

Research into dreams is an important step towards comprehending other core brain functions, such as how we learn and consolidate memories. Nonetheless, there is still a lot more research work to be completed.

With the scientists in Kyoto choosing to focus their experiment on the early stages of sleep, the depths of the more intensive R.E.M (rapid-eye movement) stage, which only begins about 90 minutes into sleep, are yet to be plumbed.  Indeed, it is this stage which may prove to be the most fascinating as it is during this time that we experience strong emotions and strange logic so peculiar to dreams.

Nevertheless, cognitive psychologist Frank Tong believes the work contributes towards an understanding of how the brain functions during different states of sleep, such as that experienced by coma patients. The Japanese research also successfully demonstrated that brain activity during dreaming is very similar to activity during wakefulness.

While the benefits of the exciting research are undeniable, a universal ‘dream-reader’ remains in the realm of science-fiction. “You would never be able to build a general classifier that could read anybody’s dreams,” Dr Mark Stokes, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Oxford, told the BBC. “They will all be idiosyncratic to the individual, so the brain activity will never be general across subjects” or indeed, he added, “You would never be able to build something that could read other peoples thoughts without them knowing about it.” What the future holds, however, can anyone ever know for certain?

Sources include: BBC News, South China Morning Post, Los Angeles Times

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