Dream contents deciphered by computer
A computer can decode the stuff of dreams. By comparing brain activity during sleep with activity patterns collected while study participants looked at certain objects, a computer learned to identify some contents of people’s unconscious reveries.
“It’s striking work,” says cognitive psychologist Frank Tong of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, who was not involved in the research. “It’s a demonstration that brain activity during dreaming is very similar to activity during wakefulness.”
The work, reported April 4 in Science by Japanese researchers led by Yukiyasu Kamitani of Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, adds to somewhat scant knowledge of how the brain constructs dreams, says Tong. The research could lead to a better understanding of what the brain does during different states of consciousness, such as those experienced by some coma patients.
Dreams are a bit of a black box and difficult to study. Experiments with mice have revealed aspects of sleep and dreaming, such as how the experiences contribute to forming memories. But a mouse can’t tell you what it dreamed about. And the sleep stage that’s richest in dreams — REM sleep — typically kicks in about 90 minutes after a person conks out, making it time consuming to gather data on dreams. The noisy fMRI brain scanning machine doesn’t help.
To skirt these experimental issues, the researchers recorded brain activity in three adult male volunteers during the early stages of sleep. After the subjects had dozed off, they were repeatedly awakened and asked for detailed reports on what they had seen while sleeping. In an example, one participant stated: “Well, there were persons, about three persons, inside some sort of hall. There was a male, a female and maybe like a child. Ah, it was like a boy, a girl and a mother. I don’t think that there was any color.”
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