Monday, April 8, 2013

Can a computer read your dreams?

By Philip Copitch, Ph.D.

People regularly ask me about their dreams and what they mean. Our fascination about dreams seems to have been a part of the human condition since the beginning of time.

With all the curiosity concerning dreams (and sleep in general), science seems to have a hard time understanding what dreams are and why we even have them.

This week in the journal Science, researchers from Japan explain their novel approach to looking into our dreams.

Lead author, Yukiyasu Kamitani of Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, and his colleagues, "taught" a computer to identify the brain activity of subjects while they were looking at specific objects; such as furniture, a street, or a girl. With this identification information they compared similar brain activity during sleep. The categories are course (rough estimates) at this time, for example "girl" versus "Mary."

The researchers gathered electronic brain activity of three male subjects while they slept. They also woke the subjects up during REM sleep (rapid eye movements often associated with dreaming) and asked them specifically what they were dreaming about.

Next, the researchers developed the course categories of items in their dreams.

Again the test subjects' brains were monitored, this time while they looked at objects from the developed categories.

The researchers used computer algorithms (set of rules to be followed in calculations) to compare the wake and sleeping brain activity with category items. The computer scored about 70% accuracy.

This early research points towards the conclusion that the brain in dream state is processing real information. Other researchers have shown that dreams are influential in storing long term memories and in the understanding of complexities of emotional thought.

Can a computer read your dreams? The simple answer is: not yet... but I do wonder how long it will take.

Recommended reading on the science of sleep and dreams:

 Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep

An engrossing examination of the science behind the little-known world of sleep.

Like many of us, journalist David K. Randall never gave sleep much thought. That is, until he began sleepwalking. One midnight crash into a hallway wall sent him on an investigation into the strange science of sleep.

In Dreamland, Randall explores the research that is investigating those dark hours that make up nearly a third of our lives. Taking readers from military battlefields to children’s bedrooms, Dreamland shows that sleep isn't as simple as it seems. Why did the results of one sleep study change the bookmakers’ odds for certain Monday Night Football games? Do women sleep differently than men? And if you happen to kill someone while you are sleepwalking, does that count as murder?

The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Sleep Disorders (Cleveland Clinic Guides)

From the nation’s top-ranked clinic for neurology, the most important health information and advice on how to avoid and cope with or overcome sleep disorders

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