The human brain is the world’s most impossible machine. It contains immense processing power that science hasn’t even begun to fathom, and recreating it is near impossible. But instead of building a computer that matches the power of the human brain, how close are we to recording what comes out of it at a conscious or subconscious level?
We see an alien landscape, ripped apart by years of war between two civilisations more advanced than humans could ever dream of. A noise in the distance arrives just as the ground starts to shake. The sensation wakes the woman from her dream to a console beaming in her face orange text. “Dream Recorded”, it reads. She drags the file from the Dream Recorder and saves it for later analysis.
That’s the opening scene from the (ill-fated) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within movie, set in 2065. Will we have to wait that long to be able to record our dreams that easily?
In the last five years we’ve seen some amazing leaps forward in the science of brain visualisation and dream recording.
Japanese and American researchers as recently as 2009 were able to synthesise images from the mind’s eye and display them on a screen.
Japanese researchers presented subjects with an image, usually a white shape on a black background before asking them to visualise it in their mind. An MRI machine hooked up to a screen was able to show what they were seeing in their minds, and with a little bit of static, the program was able to synthesise what people were thinking about visually.
As soon as it’s presented to a screen, you can capture it using any number of devices from DVD recorders through to VCRs if they still float your boat.
While the Japanese advances are impressive, what American researchers from UC Berkley under Psychology Professor Jack Gallant were able to do is simply astounding.
Subjects were presented with complex images rather than monochromatic shapes, and scientists recorded what they all saw. The imagery they captured, while it’s a little blurry, is simply astounding. People were filling out the scenes with things they had already stored in their memories while continuing to visualise the images they were presented with in vivid colour.
These discoveries are right on the edge of science, but right now, it’s not entirely feasible to think that you can roll-over one morning after having a particularly wonderful dream where you flew over mountains, or spent a night with your favourite Hollywood actor, and tap your dream recorder to save it for later viewing.
The images recorded are still incredibly blurry and they’re based entirely on showing people an image and visualising what they’re seeing while they’re conscious. Interpreting images out of someone’s head while they’re unconscious with no reference point to what they’re looking at would be infinitely more difficult.
What might be easier right now is mastering what’s known as lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is the theory that says you can bring yourself into a state where you are aware of the fact that you’re dreaming while still unconscious.
Here’s how it works:
The goggles are set to go off two hours after you’ve fallen asleep, when it assumes you’re deep in REM sleep and dreaming. Once two hours have passed, the red LED lights flash inches away from your eyes. They don’t wake you, but they do intrude into your dream state where, if you train, you’ll be able to pick up on them and then control the dream, rather than have it control you.
Where will we be in 2065? Will we be able to download our consciousness into a dream recorder and have our loved ones look back on our fondest memories as we saw them? Thanks to science, it’s more than a pipe dream.