Science

Can we actually read our dreams?

Dreams have long been associated as portals for divine wisdom. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks declared them the messenger service of the Gods, and described dreams as visitations from the heavens. Even in recent times, many notable figures have claimed their most famous ideas have come to them in dreams. Mary Shelley bore Frankenstein from a frightening nightmare, and Paul McCartney claims the tune of Yesterday appeared in a musical vision while he slept.

Dreams have always been shrouded in an air of mystery and other worldliness, so when reading Matthew Walker’s ‘Why We Sleep’ one particular study left me both intrigued and alarmed. In 2013 a research team in Japan showed common images (e.g. a car, dog) to a set of awake participants while an MRI scanner scanned their brain activity. Then, using the waking brain activity as a ‘truth template’, the participants were then scanned while they were asleep. 

Similar to how we use DNA matching to solve crimes; the researchers matched the waking brain activity to the images produced by the sleeping brain activity and looked for identical patterns between the two. Once the identical patterns were established the researchers were able to know which images the participants were dreaming about long before they woke up. It was a success; the scientists had read someone’s mind. In effect, the team had turned the MRI machine into a very expensive dream catcher. One which can decode and visualise dreams using a template that will only become increasingly sophisticated as more image-brain activity correlations are mapped out. 

However, I think there is a concerning element to all of this. The study suggests that in the not too distant future we would be able to accurately read people’s dreams and unlock a part of someone’s being that no one else would have previously known. 

Dreams have always been distinctly personal property, whereby it is the individual who decides whether to disclose their night time wanderings or not. But now, with the far-reaching hands of AI, could dream reading become just another way to exploit our fears and market our fantasies? Perhaps in the future the divine wisdom of a dream will no longer belong to the dreamer, but to a complex algorithm used to ‘figure us out’. What a nightmarish thought.

15/12/2020

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Jess Marshall


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