Is it Possible to Record our Dreams?
The vivid, bizarre and confusing aspects of dreams made old cultures interpret them in different ways as travels of soul out of the body, ancestral messages conveyed during sleep and even as divine revelations. Sigmund Freud, who developed modern psychoanalysis, described them as manifestations of our deepest desires and fears, often pertaining to childhood memories or obsessions (source: public.wsu.edu). Carl Jung, another psychologist described dreams as unconscious messages to the dreamer (source:dreamresearch.ca), while others have suggested that dreams reflect deeper and suppressed aspects of our self.
However, the exact nature our dreams have always eluded us. But science has made more inroads into this realm in recent times. Can we recapitulate our dreams in their entirety, without even waking up? If we can, what will they tell us?
Dreams occur in our sleep, and it is no wonder that sleep and dreams intimately connected as far as brain functions are concerned. Sleep is a natural and reversible state of inactivity with reduced response to our surroundings, and the most vivid dreams occur in a phase of sleep called the REM sleep that characterized by brain activity similar to that in the waking state. Although we spend up to two hours each night dreaming, the dreams happen mostly out of our control and can reflect any of our emotions.
Neurobiology (science of brain) has shown that sleep and dreaming is part of our normal brain function. Brain is made of billions of cells called neurons and each neuron connects with thousands of other neurons, transmitting information through the networks. Such networks are thought to encode our memories.
Dreams arise during changes in memory storage in brain. Like a computer rearranging its stored memory for efficient function, our brain deals with stored memories, rearranging them and even trying to connect events that are stored as separate memories. Scientists suggest that dreams might be a product of these changes during sleep, when long term memory is being processed or when weaker memories are removed.
The good news is that scientists have developed methods to monitor our brain signals and are beginning to decipher the way our brain functions during sleep. Brain signals happen as electrical signals in cells (neurons) that travel to other parts of the brain at speeds ranging from 1 to 100 meters per second. This electrical activity can be monitored using EEG. Another technique used is functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that studies blood flow in active regions of brain.
Using these techniques, scientists can now study brain signals in response to specific events: they can show a specific photo and identify which part of my brain, and which group of my neurons, is activated by it. And they have started using such techniques to identify areas of brain that functions in our dreams. These studies has the power to tell us not only how we dream, but what we dream as well.
A recent study by scientists in Japan is worth recounting here. They woke up volunteers in the initial stages of their sleep (with their brain hooked up to fMRI and EEG machines) and asked them to describe their dreams. These dreams had series of images that varied a lot among the people and their dreams. Scientists then measured brain signals while the subjects viewed photos of objects they dreamed about streets, buildings, icepicks etc.
Interestingly, the brain activity when people viewed these images was very similar to when they were dreaming the same objects. For example, seeing buildings when awake, or when dreaming, caused the same brain functions and similar pattern in activity. These patterns were so consistent that scientists were able to identify objects in dreams by analyzing the brain function alone.
These studies are in very early stages now, but they offer the exciting possibility that we can understand and recollect our dreams without having to wake up. All we need is a vast personal library of brain responses to different events and stimuli. This will have major impact on treatments of many brain disorders and may even help to improve our memory. However, for many of us the best part of our dreams will remain that elusive bit that we can almost remember, but can't - and having it all played out like a movie may make it all too mundane.
Written by : Sujatha S., Canada (PHD Life Sciences)
Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )