According to some U.S. researchers, we might be closer than we think to recording dreams, in theory, a least. Writing in Nature, Dr. Moran Cerf has said his team has "developed a system capable of recording higher-level brain activity." The aim of Cerf's project is "to develop a system that would enable psychologists to corroborate people's recollections of their dream with an electronic visualisation" of brain activity:
He admits that there is a very long way to go before this simple observation can be translated into a device to record dreams—a "dream catcher." But he thinks it is a possibility—and he said he would like to try.Electrodes surgically implanted deep inside the brain? Gulp. In my childhood fantasy the electrodes were simply taped onto my forehead, as in all gullible movies featuring earnest scienticians. The article continues: "By showing volunteers a series of images, Dr. Cerf and his colleagues were able to identify neurons for a wide range of objects and concepts—which they used to build up a database for each patient. These included Bill and Hilary Clinton, the Eiffel Tower and celebrities" (including Marilyn Monroe, of whom an intellectual conjuring apparently lit up a certain neuron in the brain. I bet.). The ability to correlate one's dream imagery with the storehouse of public imagery, of course, is as limited as the storehouse itself, and who's in charge of what images get into—or are banned from—the storehouse? An "entire complex dream narrative" would indeed be the Holy Grail. And just as elusive.
The next stage is to monitor the brain activity of the volunteers when they are sleeping.
The researchers will only be able to identify images or concepts that correlate with those stored on their database. But this data base could in theory be built up—by for example monitoring neuronal activity while the volunteer is watching a film.
Dr. Roderick Oner, a clinical psychologist and dream expert, believes that while this kind of limited visualisation might be of academic interest, it will not really help in the interpretation of dreams or be of use in therapy.
"For that you need the entire complex dream narrative," he said.
Another difficulty with the technique is that to get the kind of resolution needed to monitor individual neurons, subjects had to have electrodes surgically implanted deep inside their brain.
In the Nature study, the researchers obtained their results by studying patients who had electrodes implanted to monitor and treat them for brain seizures.
Much of the emotional power in dreaming is rooted in our having forgotten them. There's some grieving there, especially if the dream was a pleasant one, or an intensely joyous one—visiting with a long-gone loved one; revisiting some childhood idyll. But I think that the inevitable, crushing fade of those dreams encourages us to overcompensate in the re-telling: it's gone, we say, and man it must've been something. As in memories, we sometimes mistake loss for content, a vanishing, or an erosion, with substance. Maybe the dream was simply silly, stupid, nonsensical, a blind alley. Maybe that memory I cherish from so long ago is similarly constructed: given misleading gravitas through my stubborn insistence that it matters simply because I've lost it.
Dreaming image via Refined Minds.