Could Science Ever Hack Our Dreams?


I’m compelled to share this video by biologists Mitchell Moffit and Gregory Brown, founders of ASAP science.. it’s just a fun review of what we know, and what we don’t, about the science of dreams.

Plus it explains the results of recent research into tapping other people’s dreams, a la Inception. Enjoy!

Here’s the link to the video (s0rry the embed was breaking my site. I’ll put it back up later).

This is solid stuff, but three points made me raise an eyebrow.

1. Dreams are seemingly random. The video mentioned how dreams bring us “the most incredible, bizarre, and seemingly random storylines.” I love the enthusiasm of the narrators, but, as Kelly Bulkeley has recently written about for the Huffington Post, a lot of current dream research suggests that dream narratives are predictable, non-bizarre and pretty much about the dealings of ordinary life. For these theories, however, you have to stray outside of biology and into cognitive science.

2. Dream Theories = Brain Theories. A list of theories for why we dream speeds by halfway through the video, showing what are supposed to be the best and current theories for the possible functions of dreams. Incredibly, the “reverse learning” theory of dreams is listed — (at minute 1:23)–  which is the theory that dreams are “junk,” artifacts of the brain trying to forget information, so it’s stupid to try to remember your dreams.

Honestly folks, this theory has sooo little evidence behind it… and the only reason it keeps showing up is because skeptics (who are not actually dream experts) and postmodern journalists really, really want to believe that their dreams are meaningless (it’s easier that way, I guess).

It’s also interesting to note what current theories of dream function were not mentioned, such as the evolutionary theory of dreaming, the cognitive theory of dreaming, the continuity theory of dreams, and the contemporary theory of dreaming, all of which are supported by wide swaths of psychologists, psychiatrists and empirical scientists. 

Indeed, the list of acceptable dream theories in this video is strikingly similar to the neurological dream theories listed on wikipedia.

I guess the ASAPscience guys are biologists, after all, so they only referenced dream theories that relate directly to the brain. But biology is not the only branch of science looking at the function of dreams, y’all. Brain studies can only offer up one slice of the multiplicity that is dreaming. In fact, discussing functional theories of dreaming without consulting the data of other branches of science is naturally going to result in theories that do not discuss the patterns of meaning and feelings of emotional significance that dreams are practically defined by. 

3. Dream Hacking will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for all. Nobody actually claimed this, but if and when scientists figure out how to record and “view” people’s dreams from brain waves alone,  a la Inception, I give the world’s ethical scientists about three minutes to hold their Nobel prizes before being pummeled by Empire Overlords who will go ahead and use this process for evil.

Seriously, three minutes.

Your thoughts? 


  1. Chris Weber says

    The video didn’t seem to reveal much of anything, other than some brute force MRI tactics were being used to correlate patterns in the brain. So if you show me a “T”, and I think about the T-shaped megalithic structures at Gobekli Tepe, do the results loose reliability? Show me an “L” and I either think of Love or Larry David, so I might laugh or cry. I’m glad to see there’s still a long way to go in terms of research into the neuroscience of dreams. Thanks for sharing, great report as always Ryan!

  2. says

    Sure, I get the enthousiasm behind the whole ‘videotaping the dream’ idea. People like visuals: making the invisable visable somehow makes it more tangable.

    But here is my problem: dreams are a lot more than movies in your mind. Yes, the visual aspect is the most tangible to remember. But as was suggested over a decade ago: these visuals may be like little post-it notes. A helpful scribble to remember a long train of thought (Spoormaker). After all, a picture says more than a thousand words.
    Clever as it is to make brain processes visual, it can lead astray: it suggests that the visual aspect of dreaming IS the dreaming. That would be like saying that the visual aspect of thinking is the whole thinking process.

    As we discover that sleep mentation and waking mentation are much more alike than previously assumed (eg Barrett, Hartmann), it seems oldfashioned to focus on one aspect of this ongoing thinking process and pretend that that’s all there is to it. Just because the visual aspect of dreaming happens to be something that is measurable, and the thing people remember most, it may be a small part of the nightly thinking process, as it is a small part of the daily mentation.

    • Ryan Hurd says

      excellent point. Dreams are not a movie, there’s no projector screen, and besides this strategy will never be able to encompass the emotional timbre of a seen dream experience. Although I can easily imagine some forced brain scans in which specific forms of visual data are looked for after sending a dreamer/prisoner through a “training” session.

  3. says

    Interesting video … I appreciate your comments on it, Ryan. The problem with videos such as this is that people who are not doing their own internal research hear the word “science” and believe that it is “fact.”

    As Nicoline says, dreams are not just visual. And, it seems that people around the world in many cultures have experience with the question, (and spiritual answers to the question), “why do we dream?” I wonder if brain scientists can accept truths that are found in experience other than brain activity??

    • Ryan Hurd says

      Good point. very different kinds of truth on display here. and I’m actually not convinced that this research will actually help answer the question “why do we dream” but rather “what does the visual brain produce when we dream.” The function question cant’ be answered by biology alone.

  4. says

    Sadly, I think the three-minutes-to-evil is generous … given how things are going these days, I’d say once the public finds out ‘Inception’ is possible, we’ll find out it’s been done for months (years?) and is already locked under patent by Monsanto.

    That said, I agree with the earlier post-ers. Images alone tell us little about dream meanings without the individual symbolic and emotional contexts. Should generate some interesting research though!

    Thanks for the post, Ryan.

    • Ryan Hurd says

      wow you’re right. Kinda like all the solar energy patents are just sitting around waiting for the right price point for oil to be surpassed. creepy thought.

  5. Sukhpreet Singh says

    Hello Ryan and everyone else,
    What happen if we can use the lights and binaural beats to control dreams lets say in REM sleep we play beta waves that allow person to come back conciousness and at same time there will be flash of different led lights that stimulate conciousness….