Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Private Screening with the Mind's Eye

Like many, I've long fantasized about a machine that records my dreams.  My imagined device—in visions consistently corny and unscientific since childhood—features electrodes affixed to my head which reads and transmits my dreams, and then records them onto a video player.  In the morning, all I have to do is unhook the electrodes, press rewind, maybe grab some popcorn if I've had a particularly rip-roaring dream or two, and press play.  This would be amazing, and this would be horrid.  I'm afraid of what I might have dreamed and forgotten: who knows what might have lurked in the deep canyons of my imagination that night, lurid or embarrassing fantasies let loose during REM sleep but thankfully repressed upon waking.  I'd have to have a private screening before I'd let anyone else see.

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.
     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. 
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.


This morning I awoke having dreamed of being terribly ill with the flu, of getting lost while driving in Washington D.C. (where my car turned into a bicycle, and vice versa, and where the roads morphed from two-lane width to alley-width with no warning); and of keeping pet monkeys in my back yard.  All fun stuff.  I would've loved to have seen those monkeys again!  The babies fit right into the palm of my hand!  I think.  As is the case with most dreams, the moment I awoke, the gradual, then rapid, fading of the REM celluloid began.  I started to then re-imagine what I dreamed; when describing the dreams to Amy just minutes after waking, I was unsure as to details, the order of events, and was as likely inserting and re-purposing details as I was recalling them.  A video recording of these dreams might be interesting to watch, or it might be disappointing.  My monkeys-in-the-backyard dream might've been simply two or three momentary narrative images, not an entire raucous story.  And that dream of getting lost in D.C., my modes of transport suspect, at best?  That might reveal far more to me than I want to admit of how my intense homesickness for the East Coast has shaped me, an voluntary/involuntary exile in the Midwest.  Right there on the big screen.

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.

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