Despite being something we do each night, dreaming is still little understood by scientists. Because dreaming takes place deep within the subconscious layers of our minds, it is difficult, if not impossible, to study dreaming from a scientific perspective. It’s understood that REM sleep, the part of the sleep cycle during which we dream, has an important role in consolidating and storing memories, but little else is known about the role of dreaming. A few studies have found that dreaming can help prevent stress and even help with some medical conditions like PTSD or anxiety, but ultimately dreams remain a mystery.
However, scientists around the world are leveraging advances in brain scanning and other neuroscientific techniques in order to unlock the mysteries of dreaming by actually being able to view and record them. Just how close are we to being able to ‘see’ others’ dreams?
The ability to view and record dreams may come about thanks to electromyography, a technique to study the electrical impulses sent from the brain to the body’s muscles. Even when we are asleep and not moving or talking, the brain sends small electrical signals to the muscles involved with speech or movement. The same happens while we ‘talk’ to ourselves in our heads. These electrical signals could someday soon allow scientists or medical professionals to reconstruct the dreaming speech of patients while they sleep.
Another technique involves fMRI scans of the brain, which reveal blood flow within the brain. A few researchers have developed methods for interpreting fMRI data in order to reconstruct the visual images waking individuals are seeing. The same technique could be applied to dreams, but much more research is needed.
These new methods of viewing and recording dreams could open up entirely new avenues for treating mental illnesses, anxiety, or even phobias. Dreams are thought to be a kind of window into the subconscious where our deepest emotions are produced and recorded, so any glimpse through that window could allow mental health professionals to more accurately diagnose and treat patients. Still, Daniel Oldis, an independent dream researcher who is developing techniques to record movement and speech while dreaming, says that such a technology could end up being a double-edged sword:
If you can record your own dream under your own ability, what’s to stop someone from recording a dream of yours? Could the future of military interrogation be hacking a prisoner’s dreams for information?
While being able to view others’ dreams sounds fascinating, it certainly presents certain ethical questions. Whose dreams are off-limits? Must consent be given to view one’s dreams? Could individuals be charged for crimes they dream about committing in the future? Science fiction is full of warnings against peering inside the minds of others. Maybe it’s time we heeded them for once.