Unless you’ve been keeping a dream journal, chances are you have no idea what you’ve been dreaming about. I’m willing to guess though that you’re curious to know. Scientists recently figured out a way to do just that—to actually see into our dreams.
In October 2012, a team of researchers from the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan used functional neuroimagaing to scan the brains of people sleeping while simultaneously recording their brain wave activity with an electroencephalography (EEG). The process went something like this: once the researchers detected brain wave patterns that indicated dreaming, they would wake each person up and ask them to report their dreams; this was repeated in three-hour blocks over the course of several days and each person was woken up ten times an hour. In the end, each participant reported having dreamt six to seven times an hour, giving the researchers a total of approximately 200 dreams to examine.
The team then put together categories based on what kind of images were showing up in their dreams—such as ‘car’, ‘female’, and ‘computer’—then selected corresponding photos for each and watched brain activity again while participants viewed these pictures. The researchers then compared this activity with the activity that was recorded just before participants were woken up.
According to Nature, “In 2008, Kamitani and his colleagues reported that they could decode brain activity associated with the earliest stages of visual processing to reconstruct images shown to participants. Now, they have found that activity in the higher order brain regions could accurately predict the content of the participants’ dreams.” Even more incredible is that the team built a model to predict whether a dream contained a particular image—with 75-80% accuracy.
This research, which was presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, Louisiana in October, indicates there may be a connection in neural representations between our dreaming and visual perception. And because reports were most accurate in the tens of seconds before waking, it also suggests our dream recall is based on short-term memory.
What Are You Dreaming About?
Want to try and figure out what you’re dreaming about, but know you don’t have the required self-discipline for keeping a dream journal? The solution may be to simply start drinking several glasses of water before bedtime. According to a 2009 Nova Expert Q&A session with Robert Stickgold, PhD, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Director at the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School, “The best way to remember some dreams is to drink four large glasses of water before bed. This will cause you to wake up repeatedly during the night, and the most likely times will be at the ends of periods of REM sleep, when you are most likely to be dreaming intensely. Almost everyone who reports "no dreaming" will recall dreams when awakened from REM sleep."