The following paper is a review of the current science and engineering that investigates the phenomenon of dreaming. An overview of the field and it’s prospects is described, followed by the benefits such research will be able to deliver on, and finally a description of relevant research is given, both current and planned. The paper is oriented around the question “Will it ever be possible to record a dream and view the recording on a screen?”
Illumin: Putting a Dream on a Screen
Dreams have been long revered yet poorly misunderstood throughout human history. Some of the oldest artwork found depict the journey of a human soul into the ‘dreamworld,’ and dreams remain a popular subject of contemporary art, indicating the persistence of human intrigue with dreaming. In spite of this lasting curiosity, some pivotal questions remain: where do dreams come from and why do we dream at all? While there are still different opinions on the answers to these questions, research in neuroscience and psychology has already revealed that some of the basic assumptions about dreaming from the twentieth century were incorrect. A new kind of science is being built from the rubble of these insights. The experience of dreaming is being connected to specific parts of the brain and new experimental tools have emerged in recent years that might enable researchers to one day see the dreams of their subjects or perhaps even trigger the onset of dreams. Ultimately it will be the work of neural engineers to build the foundation for the design of these devices that record, induce, and manipulate our dreams.
The Difficulties of Dream Research
The main difficulty with dream research, known as oneirology, is the challenge it presents to the scientific method. The scientific method holds that in order to draw reasonable conclusions from data, an experimenter must be able to control a variable in the experiment. It is hoped that this controlled variable will validate or invalidate the hypothesis proposed prior to the experiment. Currently, controlling a variable of the dreaming process isn’t possible.
In a personal correspondence, prominent dream researcher G. William Domhoff explained “[T]he problem is that you can't make [dreams] happen, can't see them while they are happening, and can't get any after-the-fact info on them, except through [questionable] verbal reports.” To psychologists like Domhoff, this means that there is a lack of control that “psychologists rightly desire to have.” Aside from this methodological block to oneirology, the research in and of itself is expensive; subjects must be paid to spend a night or more in a lab, and researchers must be willing to do the same . Some solutions to this problem might include automating the roles of researchers so only subjects are in the lab or just collecting dream reports and biological data from a subject sleeping at home.
There appear to be no immediate capital benefits from studying dreaming in a clinical context. This lack of foreseeable profit combined with the difficulty maintaining scientific rigor in the research itself makes for an environment in which there is very light funding and very few opportunities for academic recognition. This combination of poor conditions unfortunately scares off qualified researchers from studying this fascinating and deeply mysterious field. While these conditions make it difficult to study the workings of the dreaming mind, there are many legitimate reasons for future scientists and engineers to think deeply about this subject.
The Benefits of Oneirology
The National Academy of Engineering announced a set of problems at the turn of the millennium, which they have described as “Engineering Grand Challenges.” These challenges represent the greatest problems facing humanity and invite engineers to consider solutions of their own. Included among these challenges are “reverse engineering of the brain,” “enhancement of virtual reality,” and “personalization of medicine.” These are all efforts that would benefit from a deeper understanding of the biological basis of dreaming. In fact, oneirology research is intrinsic to the endeavor of reverse engineering the brain. To fully understand cognition, consciousness needs to be explained in terms of the way the brain actually functions [2, 3], and these explanations need to be able to answer questions about the way mind functions while it is both awake and asleep if they are to be considered complete.
The National Academy of Engineers lists virtual reality (VR) as a necessary tool of the twenty-first century, and research into dreaming is the key to the holy grail of VR: full immersion. A strong evolutionary explanation of dreaming doesn’t currently exist, yet it is a fact of life that nature has crafted a fully immersive virtual experience for us each night. With deeper investigation into the neural networks responsible for dreaming coupled with technological advances in brain-computer interfacing, it is not difficult to conceive of a system that uses the dream as the medium for constructing a virtual world.
The NAE imagines virtual reality to be an indispensable tool in the future of instruction and experimentation in fields such as medicine, warfare, and education. In fact, virtual reality is already a central tool in teaching pilots how to fly and surgeons how to operate. Engineered dreaming can be expected to enhance the utility of these tools and enable teachers to construct more realistic exercises for students to train with.
The final challenge mentioned, the personalization of medicine, will be deeply affected by dream research when a medical theory of dreaming emerges. Dreaming is one of the most personal experiences that a person may have. Presently there is no way to know for sure whether or not a dream can give broaden perspective on the wellness of a patient but this is likely the case. Dreams are a result of our physiology and our bodies are deeply interconnected systems. Therefore it seems that might by mining our deeply personal and (mostly) uncontrollable psychological events we can better analyze the state of our health. For example it isn’t hard to imagine the value in thoroughly analyzing the content of a patient’s dreams and using this analysis to accurately diagnose and effectively treat their mental or physical illness. This clinical approach stretches back to Freud and psychoanalysis and, although psychology has come a long way since the 1900’s, dreams remain an attractive diagnostic tool to doctors who desire a more holistic perspective on their patients.
Current State of Research Figure 1: The Sleep Cycle
Dreams had been the object of twentieth century academic inquiry under Freud and Jung for many years, but the contention between the two camps and the lack of tools that produced concrete evidence about the dreaming brain led to a dwindling in research as the century marched forward. But in 1953, two graduate students studying the physiology of sleeping subjects discovered that rapid eye movements (REM) were often associated with reports of dreaming . This finding greatly renewed interest in the study of dreaming and its connection to the body. This landmark work led to the discovery that sleep occurs in different stages. These different stages of sleep indicated to scientists that a subject’s propensity to dream increased as the night wore on, which happened in parallel with increasing episodes of REM, as shown by the widening gaps of REM stage sleep in Figure 1. In the 1960’s a French researcher named Michel Jouvet inquired into the neurochemistry responsible for these shifting physiological states in subjects during sleep . In his research with cats, he found that aminergic neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin were at least partially responsible for the waking portion of consciousness, known as vigilance. In sleeping animals, he found that acetylcholine acted in the body at high concentrations, and was therefore most likely to be tied into the chemistry responsible for sleep. Jouvet’s research seemed to point to dreams as a sort of ‘paradoxical’ chemical state of the body, where amines and acetylcholine fought for control of consciousness, producing a state of vigilance within an otherwise unconscious body. These findings have led some self-experimentalists to utilize drugs to induce dreams, like galantamine, calea zacatechichi and even nicotine, which apparently modulate the amine-acetylcholine balance in the body through their metabolic action .
Figure 2: Oxygen concentration in different regions of the brain tells researchers what parts of the brain are at work and how hard they are working
From Dresler et al. 2011 Outside of a pharmacological domain, there is research being done using subjects that have the ability to willfully enter into a lucid dream. Lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness in which a person is in a dream and concurrently aware that they are in a dream. Using a technique developed in the 1980’s by Stanford researcher Stephen LaBerge, lucid dreaming subjects signal to researchers that they are conscious while in the dream state by moving their eyes in a synchronized pattern . This method of synchronized eye movement convinced most researchers of the reality of lucid dreaming in the 1980’s, even though Tibetan Buddhist monks have written about the phenomenon for hundreds of years . Recent research using functional MRI on lucid dreaming subjects has compared the activity of the motor cortex while awake and its activity while subjects are in a lucid dream: the subjects clenched their fists while awake, then imagined clenching their fists (again while awake) and then reported clenching their fists while in a lucid dream . The researchers found that the brain acts similarly in both scenarios.