Decoding our dreams

Cape Capital

By Cape Capital


Innovation and Technology

World renowned neuroscientist Moran Cerf unpacks the mysteries of the resting mind

‘The biggest misconception about dreams is that they are like a horoscope; this idea that you can buy a book of symbols that have simplified meanings and use it to interpret a story from your sleep,’ says neuroscientist, and friend of Cape, Moran Cerf.

'We all lose consciousness when we sleep and it’s a mystery'

‘Dreams are a fascinating subset of one of the most interesting questions in science, which is about consciousness. We all lose consciousness when we sleep and it’s a mystery. Too few people study dreams because it requires having two skills, neuroscience and computer science. Even fewer study consciousness.’

Of course, the most notorious figure associated with exploring the unconscious mind was the founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Freud believed that all of our dreams have meaning—no matter how nonsensical—and can be decoded by assessing our associations that come to mind in relation to each element of the dream.

Whilst Freud’s views have been readily dismissed as unscientific, Moran argues that his only major misstep was that he ‘didn’t have direct access to people’s dreams, only to people talking about their dreams. We know this version is tainted because it’s filtered through our awake senses. The biggest development in recent years is that now, when scientists study your dreams, we don’t need you to tell us a story. We can look at the brain and extract content directly without bias. Where Freud was very accurate is that he realised talking about dreams is a lens into someone’s consciousness and that is what we care about.’

Decoding our dreams 2

Moran has been captivated by life’s big philosophical questions since childhood, but was catapulted into the public eye after being credited—mistakenly—as the first person to successfully build a machine that could record dreams. Dubbed by the media as a ‘modern-day Freud’, Moran decided to own the label and centre himself at the forefront of dream research.

'We use dreams to solve problems for our awake self'

Today, there are seven scientific theories about the meaning of dreams which run the gamut. Some argue that they are simply the brain’s way of protecting itself from being taken over by other functions. Others say that dreams are a kind of simulation of potential future scenarios. Moran is in the latter camp. ‘The brain has a mechanism where it creates a virtual reality experience while you sleep, so whether you’re considering a move to a new country or a career pivot into politics, you can rehearse how it might play out. When you wake up the story is wiped, but the emotions and feelings remain. In the end, you might have better intuition about whether you want to do those things in real life,’ he says. ‘In other words, we use dreams to solve problems for our awake self.’

The art of decoding dreams is split into two arms of research: reading them and interacting with them. Yet even within these fields, debate rages about the best scientific approaches.

The first way is to show people visuals when they are awake, then study their visual cortex via a brain scan while they sleep, to identify images (a blue triangle moving from left to right, followed by a black circle, for example). This can be undertaken with any participant in a lab setting.

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The second—favoured by Moran—is to work with patients who are undergoing brain-surgery, implanting electrodes in the memory part of the brain to record the activity of individual nerve cells. ‘We can see which neurons are firing and know what each one is code for,’ he says. ‘Perhaps neuron one is the Eiffel Tower and neuron two is the person’s father. In the first approach, scientists might see a triangle but they don’t know if that stands for the ocean or a house. By studying the neuron codes, I know someone is thinking of their house but not what that looks like. I can understand the narrative but have no idea what visual the person saw. If we could merge the two processes, we would have the complete story.’

Half of Moran’s time is spent taking the research one step further, looking at the possibility of influencing dreams. The possibilities are limitless; from working out how to take someone out of a nightmare to helping them navigate a lucid dream or controlling its content (zapping the neuron that is coded to the Eiffel Tower means it will appear, for instance).

'We assign our own meaning to dreams and sometimes live our lives accordingly'

‘There are many reasons why we want to decode our dreams,’ he says, citing the fact that dreams allow us to compress time and connect seemingly unrelated incidents as one motivation. ‘Science aside, we assign our own meaning to dreams and sometimes live our lives accordingly. We also spend a third of our lives sleeping and yet so often it’s treated like a waste of time. The brain is more active when you’re asleep than when you’re awake—muscles are built, memories are arranged—so we want to know as much as we can about what’s going on, and use it to our benefit.’

According to Moran, investors have long-overlooked the business case for dream-altering technology. ‘Dreams are the ultimate movie made up by your brain,’ he says. Unlocking the ability to create content 'which looks and feels real and can be replayed night-after-night,' would transform the entertainment industry.

Although still in its infancy, the rise of AI technology could prove to be key to future dream discoveries – both in terms of scale and speed. ‘Right now, those reading dreams have to show a participant thousands of images, and this visual mapping takes a long time. With AI, we could do this in real time while someone sleeps,’ explains Moran. Similarly, AI could scale-up the number of neurons that could be decoded simultaneously. ‘We need better machines AI-wise, and better electrodes, so we can decode dreams in a much higher resolution.

For now, though, he suggests anyone keen on deciphering their own dreams at home should keep a pen and paper handy by the bed. ‘If you write dreams down the instant you wake up, you will start seeing patterns and that’s fascinating.' As the 20th century physician Havelock Ellis once said, ‘dreams are real as long as they last. Can we say more about life?’.

Moran Cerf is Professor of Business at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University