Dreams are a peculiar aspect of the human mind, and the scientific study of dreaming — oneirology — seeks to illuminate this phenomena.
Reported in the Current Biology, a recent experiment from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, with assistance from Charité Hospital in Berlin, has been able to reveal dream content by analyzing brain activity of a select few individuals with a unique ability to objectively control their dreaming — known as lucid dreaming. This will help us better understand the neurophysiologic processes that occur while we are sleeping.
Lucid dreaming is when you become aware you are dreaming, and have the ability to then control your dream’s environment. This lucidity usually occurs mid-dream when the sleeper becomes conscious that the physical reality in which they are present is not real. This may be triggered by the peculiarity of the scenario in which the dreamers find themselves.
According to lead author Martin Dresler, “about half of people have had a lucid dream,” though “very few have them on a regular basis.” Although some people have the innate ability to have lucid dreams, this ability can be taught and developed in a way similar to learning another language.
The capacity to lucid dream was one of the main tools used in the study. Researchers took six practiced lucid dreamers and told them specifically how to control their dream. While sleeping, the dreamers gave the experimenters a “ready” signal by moving their eyes back and forth during REM sleep. This allowed the experimenters to then run the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, which would view the activity of the areas of the brain. Once in place, the dreamer within the dream was told to squeeze their right and left hands alternatively for 10 seconds to show the activity that occurs during the brain at this time.
Although only one of the six lucid dreamers was able to complete the task, the test proved helpful. The experimenters were able to deduce that there was increased activity in the sensorimotor cortex region of the brain, an area important for planning and controlling voluntary motor functions. As the dreamer squeezed his right hand, the left side of the sensory motor cortex increased in activity and as the dreamer squeezed his left hand, the right side of the sensory motor cortex increased in activity.
The advantage of studying a lucid dreamer as opposed to just a normal dreamer is their ability of control within the dream. The patterns of brain activity in a normal, uncontrolled dream as shown through the use of fMRI may be rather chaotic, lacking consistency, and thus too difficult to place. Experimenting on a lucid dreamer is comparatively easy, as the study was able to analyze specific brain activities that occur during dreaming.
Although this recent study opens up possibilities for other fMRI dream testing, its work regarding dream content analysis is still very much preliminary. Because this data comes from only one participant on a single set task, we are still in the dark when it comes to revealing dream content by fMRI when people are self-generating and altering their own dreams.
As study co-author Michael Czisch of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry puts it: “To get real insight into a complete dream plot is a bit science fiction.”