December 3, 2012 - Have you ever tried to control your dreams?
Back in my college days I became obsessed with lucid dreaming -- having dreams
in which I was aware I was dreaming and could shape my internal world with thought alone. After a few weeks of practice, I'd trained myself to ask, "Am I dreaming? How do I know?" whenever something in my environment seemed "off." One night I found myself chatting with Kurt Cobain
in my living room. "Wait a minute," I said, "Kurt Cobain's been dead for years!" And suddenly I could fly through the roof and off into the sky. For the next few months I spent a few nights every week hurtling through space, defeating mobs of ninjas and sampling the affections of famous actresses. Sue me -- I was 18, and The Matrix
was the coolest thing on Earth.
According to a recent paper, though, it may be possible to control someone else's dreams from the outside.
The study, published in September in the journal Nature, investigated whether a specific memory could be activated in a dream, if animals were taught to associate that memory with a particular sound. The scientists put some mice in a maze and played them two kinds of sounds: one that meant "turn right," and one that meant "turn left." Once the mice had learned to run the maze, the researchers gave them some chill time -- or so the mice thought!
In fact, the researchers had made detailed recordings of each mouse's brain activity as it ran through the maze. Then, as the mice drifted off to sleep, the researchers waited for those same brain-activity patterns to reappear in their furry dreams. As each Little Rodent Nemo ran its maze in slumberland, the scientists played each of the sounds again. Not only did the dreaming mice respond to the tones, but their brains reacted exactly as they had when the mice were awake (minus the actual scurrying, of course). In short, these scientists have discovered a way to track and control dreams.
"Seriously?" I can hear some of you saying. "How can we possibly know what a mouse is dreaming about?" And that's a fair question. It's not like we can enter their minds and see what they're seeing. But, as eerie as it seems, we're getting pretty damn close. We know that specific nerve cells in the hippocampus (a brain structure crucial for memory) fire only when an animal returns to a specific place it remembers. Other hippocampal cells fire only when an animal faces in a particular direction, or when it focuses on a specific area of its visual field.