Brain Scan Can Decode Your Dreams

By Becky Lang | April 4, 2013 1:03 pm

It’s happened to all of us—something wakes you smack in the middle of a random, Technicolor assortment of people, rooms, buildings and streets. They were all interacting as if it made sense, and then you can remember hardly anything from the dream.

But what if you didn’t have to? What if a machine could read your dreams?

A team of researchers in Japan has established that the contents of dreams can be discerned by monitoring the brain’s visual centers while people are asleep. The finding opens the door to a dream decoder that could tell us what we dream about, even if we forget it upon awaking.

The study observed three participants as they laid in a functional MRI (fMRI) scanner. The participants were allowed to doze off and were awoken just as they started to fall asleep (i.e., before REM sleep). Upon waking they were asked to describe what they were seeing in their dreams—maybe a car moving down a street, a person drinking coffee in a sunny café, or a cat in the neighbor’s yard. Participants were woken at least 200 times, or about every 5.7 minutes, just as they were slipping into sleep, and researchers logged each dream description.

Each participant’s descriptive words filled a personalized database. Specific words were categorized more generally, into about 20 categories per person: For example, “ice pick,” “key and “plunger were all grouped under the category “”implement.””

Researchers then found images online that matched these general categories and showed them to participants while awake. MRI recordings matched up with categories to train the computer to pick out the neural “signature” of each category of things.

The result was a personalized dream-detector for each participant. When the researchers tested the software in a second round of sleep tests, they were able to predict the category of a person’s immediately preceding dream visualizations with 60% accuracy, they report today in the journal Science.

Thus, in principle, the team established that visual information results in similar brain patterns whether a person is awake and looking at an image on the Web or is dreaming just before falling asleep. The work may lead to a dream detector that could re-create dream content that’s forgotten upon awaking. However since the classic dreaming stage of sleep is REM sleep, further studies will need to be done to see if REM dreams are also detectable in this way.

Image courtesy dragon_fang / Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
MORE ABOUT: dreams, sleep
  • sourav

    nice one,…

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  • Julie Flygare

    This article highlights really exciting possibilities for de-coding/capturing dream content. However, I’m confused by your description “dreaming just before falling asleep”. Surely you don’t mean that people are dreaming while awake? How could one dream BEFORE falling asleep? Generally, people do not enter REM/dream sleep until 60-90 minutes after falling asleep. I’m surprised that “dream content” was found before N-REM sleep (stage 1, 2 and 3) here – unless the subjects were sleep-deprived or people with narcolepsy (a disorder in which one enters dream sleep upon falling asleep due to the inappropriate timing of REM sleep in their brains). Regardless of this confusion, thank you for this fascinating article! Julie Flygare, narcolepsy spokesperson and author of “Wide Awake and Dreaming: A Memoir of Narcolepsy”

    • Lisa Raffensperger

      Hi Julie,

      Here’s what the study said about dreams during the period of drifting off:

      “We focused on visual imagery (hallucination) experienced during the sleep-onset (hypnagogic) period (sleep stage 1 or 2) because it allowed us to collect many observations by repeating awakenings and recording subjects’ verbal reports of visual experience. Reports at awakenings in sleep-onset and REM periods share general features such as frequency, length, and contents while differing in several aspects including the affective component.”

      Hope that helps!

      • wolfespirit

        So…isn’t that like or possibly the same as lucid dreaming?

    • Colin William Den Ronden

      I find that if I daydream as I’m going to sleep, I am in conscious control of the images, but then I lose control and things come randomly as I fall asleep. There seems to be a trigger that says ‘that makes sense’, but when you wake up your conscious interpretation makes the dream seems nonsense. So I’m guessing schizophrenics have the same trigger operating when they are awake.

  • Pamela Conley

    Throughout my life, I’ve experienced very vivid snippets – usually a few seconds long – of people, places, and animals I’ve never seen before. They come very quickly and then move to another unrelated scenes. Reminds me of spinning the dial on an old radio where you never know what station will be next. Some friends tried to tell me I was picking up psychic vibes. Lol

  • Tamra Scott-Hunt

    So then, is it Hypnagogic imagery?


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