“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas,” singers warble this time of year. Up until now, we’ve had to take their word for it.
But what if there were technology that could actually record imagery from a dream, and play it back for everyone to see?
Hang onto your nightcaps, because it may be on its way.
A team at ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyoto, Japan, led by Yukiyasu Kamitani, reported last week that it has successfully scanned the brains of human subjects and recreated, from scratch, images they were observing at the time.
They weren’t very exciting images: crude, black-and-white shapes, numbers, and the word “neuron,” but the fact they were able to pluck them from people’s brains is nothing short of astonishing.
Kamitani began the process by having a subject whose brain was being scanned look at a selection of images made up of black and white squares on a 10 X 10 grid. A computer searched through the brain activity for patterns corresponding to certain pixels being blacked out, and used that to record a pattern of brain activity for each pixel.
The person then sat in the scanner and was shown fresh patterns, and the computer matched those against the original to reconstruct what the person was viewing on a 10 X 10 grid.
It was just in March that scientists at the University of California in Berkeley reported that they were able to figure out, from brain activity alone, which of a selection of just over 100 previously unseen photographs subjects were viewing, once software had been calibrated to understand how each subject’s visual cortex processed information.
At the time, New Scientist magazine wrote that “the research also hints that scientists might one day be able to access dreams, memories and imagery.”
That “one day” appears to be closer than suspected, based on the new research. Crude though these early results are, they’re an important proof of concept, and the ability to extract images from brain activity is bound to improve as the technology advances.
According to Kamitani, in the future the image could be split into many more pixels, producing higher-quality images–even in colour.
If it proves to be possible to image what people are only thinking of, as well as what they are directly viewing, then you’re moving into the realm of possibly recording a dream.
Or, alternatively, reading minds.
New Scientist quotes John-Dylan Haynes of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, as saying, “It’s absolutely amazing, it really is a very significant step forward.”
But he also notes that this technology will raise significant ethical issues: under what circumstances may the images in a person’s mind be accessed?
Someone who is paralyzed and has no other way to communicate would welcome the ability to simply think of words and have them appear on a screen…but what if it became possible to access people’s minds surreptitiously? The privacy issues are obvious.
Brainstorming seems to be a particularly apt activity when discussing this topic, so here are just a few things I can think of off the top of my head (so to speak):
Could this technology be used in interrogating suspects? Would the results be admissible in court? Why or why not?
What use could artists make of this technology? Imagine an installation that displayed images gleaned from the brains of all those visiting the gallery, or a record of the creation of a piece of visual art that consists of a series of images taken from the brain of the artist, from conception to completion.
Think about the possibilities for the performing arts. Imagine a movie theatre where the images you are watching on the screen are those being consciously created by an artist behind the scenes–or the voyeuristic thrill of sitting in an audience watching someone’s dreams (though it would take a brave performer to let his or her unedited dreams be aired).
I know, I know, it’s a long way from fuzzy black-and-white images of the word “neuron” to full-motion, full-colour images displayed straight from a human brain to a video screen.
But I can dream, can’t I?