Adonis Diaries

Brain hacker? A scientist peeking into our dreams?

Posted on: May 26, 2016

Brain hacker?

What if we could peek inside our brains and see our dreams — or even shape them?

Studying memory-specific brain cells, neuroscientist (and ex-hacker) Moran Cerf found that our sleeping brains retain some of the content we encounter when we’re awake and that our dreams can influence our waking actions.

Where could this lead us? “Neuroscientists are now giving us a new tool to control our dreams,” Cerf says, “a new canvas that flickers to life when we fall asleep.”

Moran Cerf. Brain hacker. He studies the underlying mechanisms of our psychology by eavesdropping on the activity of our brain from the inside out. Full bio

Speech on Feb. 2016

So we spend a 12th of our life dreaming, and most of it is forgotten. What if we could peek inside our brain and see our dreams, maybe even shape them?

0:25 I am a neuroscientist, and I study how thinking works inside the brain. But this story starts five years ago, when my work was about to be published broadly, and one slip of a tongue made me take a big turn.

It was October 28th, and I woke up because my phone was buzzing. I look at the phone and I see that I have hundreds of missed calls. So I pick up the phone, and on the other line is a producer from the BBC, and in a thick British accent, he asks me about my work and specifically about my team’s ability to record people’s dreams for the first time in history.

just to be clear, my work had nothing to do with recording people’s dreams.

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
ted.com|By Moran Cerf

Apparently, he saw a short movie that I made to accompany the publication that’s about to come out, and I’m explaining the results there, but I want to end with something that’s like a TED-like uplifting message, so I ask one of my colleagues to explain what the future may hold. And he says, “In the future, we’ll be able to decode people’s intentions, people’s memories, people’s emotions — and maybe even their dreams.” And the camera fades out.

So I explained to the producer that we didn’t actually do that.

And he asks me, “But is it possible to record people’s dreams?”

And I say, “In theory, it’s possible.”

Five minutes later, the headline on BBC: “Scientist claims dream recording is possible.”

Within minutes, the entire world picks up on this headline, and everyone speaks about my team’s ability to record people’s dreams.

 It doesn’t matter how much I explained to everyone that this was impossible. The story now has a life of its own.   

I call my dad, who is a journalist, and I ask him, “Dad, how can I kill a story?” And he says, “No problem, just turn off the phone. No one cares about science.”

So I turn off the phone — and people start emailing me their dreams.

A famous chef asks me if I can open his brain and extract a recipe he’s been dreaming of for a while.

People ask me to look into their spouse’s dreams. Others, who finally have a proof that the CIA is spying on them, want me to go and testify in Congress.

Warner Brothers calls me. They want me to be the face of the upcoming DVD release of the movie “Inception,” to show the science behind it.

And a big computer company wanted to option the “dream-recording machine,” because my device now has a name, it has specifications, it had Wikipedia pages and fans all over the world.

To make things worse — my students had the idea to go out to a Halloween party to forget about things, so I decided, in state of a depreciative sense of humor, to dress up like Sigmund Freud.

 now there is not only just a story about me but also a nice visual to go with it, and I am deemed by the media now the modern-day Freud.

This story went on for a few weeks, until, fortunately, Prince William proposed to his girlfriend, which was much more important, and I got to go back to my work.

 if you were interested in studying dreams, I would recommend starting first by just looking at people’s thoughts when they are awake, and this is what I do.

I am indeed a neuroscientist, but I study the brain in a very non-traditional way, partially inspired by my background. Before I became a neuroscientist, I was a computer hacker. I used to break into banks and government institutes to test their security.

And I wanted to use the same techniques that hackers use to look inside black boxes when I wanted to study the brain, looking from the inside out.

neuroscientists study the brain in one of two typical methods.

1. Some of them look at the brain from the outside using imaging techniques like EEG or fMRI. And the problem there is that the signal is very kind of blurry, coarse.

2. others look at the brain from the inside, where they stick electrodes inside the brain and listen to brain cells speaking their own language. This is very precise, but this obviously can be done only with animals.

Now, if you were to peek inside the brain and listen to it speak, what you would see is that it has this electrochemical signal that you can translate to sound, and this sound is the common currency of the brain. It sounds something like this.

5:17 (Clicking)

I wanted to use this in humans, but who would let you do that? Patients who undergo brain surgery. So I partner with neurosurgeons across the globe who employ this unique procedure where they open the skull of patients, they stick electrodes in the brain to find the source of the problem, and finding the source can take days or sometimes weeks, so this gives us a unique opportunity to eavesdrop on the brains of patients while they are awake and behaving and they have their skull open with electrodes inside.

now that we do that, we want to find what triggers those cells active, what makes them tick. So what we do is we run studies like this one. This is Linda, one of our patients. She is sitting here and watching those clips.

6:16 (Video) … can’t even begin to imagine.

6:18 (Singing)

Morgan Cerf: What you hear is the sound of one cell in her brain. Try to see if you can figure out what it cares about.

6:30 (Clicking)

6:31 (Video) … I have a dream that one day —

6:33 (Clicking increases)

6:38 The Simpsons.

6:39 (Laughter)

This is one cell out of a little network that’s bound hand and fist with the concept of The Simpsons in Linda’s brain. Now, if you know what The Simpsons are, then you all have similar cells in your brain that came to life right now when you saw this image.

Now, those cells are amazing. They’re very precise. They don’t fire for any cartoon character or any yellow creature.

They only fire when you think of The Simpsons. They fire when you see any picture of The Simpsons. Even if you hear the sound of The Simpsons, or just read the text, “The Simpsons,” these cells will fire.

In fact, they fire even if you close your eyes and just imagine The Simpsons in your own head. We can remove the world, and the show still goes on. And we know that because we came back to Linda and asked her now, without saying anything, to just close her eyes and recall from her memory the things she has seen before, and what you see is that as she remembers The Simpsons, the same cell fires.

In fact, it fires seconds before she speaks.

7:44 (Clicking)

7:46 (Video) The Simpsons.

So we get to see her thoughts coming to her. Now, this is remarkable, because when I speak to you right now, I feel that everything that I have to say comes out in real time. But now you can tell that we’re actually a little bit behind. My brain plans the next word. That’s the slowest I could ever speak.  

once we find such cells in her brain, Bart Simpson, mom, dad, the Eiffel Tower, we can essentially know what she’s thinking, and then we can do all sorts of fancy stuff that is based on those cells. For example, we can have her think of her mom and just move a spaceship on a computer screen with her thoughts alone.

Or, if I can see her thoughts arising, I can actually do things before she’s conscious of it. So I can ask her to press a button, but beat her to it and turn the lights on before she gets there.

8:42 (Buzz)

And it doesn’t matter how smart she is or how fast she is. I’m always going to be there earlier because I’m inside her head.

8:56 (Laughter)  

And finally, if we can actually show your thoughts, we can just project them on a screen in front of your eyes. And this is what we did five years ago. So naturally, when people saw thoughts on a screen, they started imagining the possibility of decoding dreams in the same way. Which we did not do.

Until two years ago.

9:29 (Laughter)

When I got a call from the BBC again, and they asked me about dream recording, I told them, “You know, we’ve been through it before.” And they said, “No, we actually want you to comment on the work of someone that just came out that shows that this can be done.”

So it turns out, three years after I explained to everyone why this was only theoretically possible, a colleague of mine, Professor Yukiyasu Kamitani from Japan, was inspired by it and did it. And that’s when I decided I want to do it myself.

 I decided I’m going to dive into dream research in two paths. The researcher in me said I’m going to try to see if we can access them and show them, and the hacker in me said I want to see if we can influence them and change people’s behaviors.

Looking into dreams is really interesting, obviously, but it’s also very helpful.

And the reason is that we don’t really know what we’re dreaming precisely if we just rely on what you tell us, because the language that you use is unreliable for two reasons.

One, they fade away when we wake up. And this is by design: this is our brain’s way of making sure we don’t confuse them with real memories, so you don’t think you actually scored a touchdown and had dinner with Aaron Sorkin.

And if you actually remember something, we only describe them in the vocabulary that we have when we’re awake.

So blind people usually don’t describe their dreams visually, because sight isn’t in their vocabulary. Or, if anyone here is in their 70s, it’s very likely that when you were younger, you described your dreams in black and white.

Only when people started seeing movies in color did they think that dreams should be in color too.

looking into dreams is really interesting. It’s allowing us to actually get access to something that you forget. Imagine giving Einstein, Shakespeare or Picasso access to the dreams they forget in the morning. We were very excited about it, and we said, let’s try to do it. But how?

we had the idea: maybe the same neurons that fire when you’re awake survive even when you’re sleeping. After all, it’s the same brain. It’s us, awake or asleep.

So my colleague Florian Mormann had the idea to go to the patient and tell them a story that involved the things that we find during the day. So Bart Simpson visits Paris, he goes to a Beatles concert with Al Gore, and so on. Then he asks the patient to memorize the story and go to sleep, and tells them, when you wake up, I’ll ask you to tell it again.

And what he shows is that when they’re sleeping, the brain replays the same story using the same neurons in the same order, sequence and timing, as if you see the story in your mind, and this is remarkable.

we don’t know if the story that she sees is the same as the one that we decode. Maybe in her mind, Al Gore is holding a balloon and Bart Simpson is blue. But something about the content is preserved, and we can now decode it. And this is the first time someone could show a dream in such precise accuracy in humans.

we were very excited. But we said, this is still people with open brains, electrodes inside. Can we do it with everyone?

And here, our colleagues from Japan show us that the answer is yes. We can zoom out from the brain and actually bring people and try to look at their dreams.

Now, when you zoom out, the resolution decreases, so instead of seeing Bart Simpson and Al Gore, you will see maybe that it’s a person or an object or some character, but something about the content is preserved. And maybe we can look at it.

we brought people to the scanner and had them fall asleep, and fortunately, from my experience, people fall asleep in my studies all the time. And while they are sleeping, the computer tries to guess what they’re dreaming using those high-level concepts. Is it a person? Is it a character?

And once the computer is getting good in making a guess on what you’re dreaming, we wake you up and we ask you to tell us the story. And what we show is that the computer is amazing in just learning over time to guess your dream and predict something about the gist of the story that you saw in your mind.

now we’re pretty excited, because we have a way to get there, working both internally and externally. So this gets us now to thinking about the ability to maybe also change things when you are asleep.

To change things when you are asleep, you have to know something about the function of dreams. And here neuroscientists are debating, and the range of options is wide.

Some say the function of dreams is to forget things, erase memories or suppress thoughts, whereas the others say that this is our brain’s way of simulating futures, so you’re kind of thinking about dumping him and moving to Vancouver or marrying him and starting a family in Alabama.

You don’t know the answer. Your brain is going to simulate both options and give you something to think about when you wake up.

But regardless of whichever option you believe in, what’s common to all of them is that during the night, we think that this is our brain’s way of keeping ourselves up and crafting answers to problems.

So we said that if we define the right moment, we can maybe change things in your dreams. Now, this of course is quite spooky, the idea that something happens to me when I’m sleeping. But we’re going to show you how we’re using that.

A colleague of mine brought people to the lab who are addicted smokers, and she had them go to sleep. And during the sleep, she sprayed the smell of cigarettes into their nose. And right after, she sprayed the smell of rotten eggs into their nose, making their brain think they don’t like smoking. And then she wakes them up. They have no idea what happened, but somehow their brain creates this feeling. So when they leave the lab, for a few days after, they feel less of an urge to smoke.

And then we said, let’s see if we can do the same thing with people whose awake realities haunt them when they are awake and when they’re sleeping, like Nicholas. He was discharged from the Army after his service in Iraq because he has post-traumatic stress. His awake reality bothers him, and he is unable to solve it.

So we got him into the lab and had him to go sleep for several nights. And every night, we paired the sounds that trigger the traumas in his brain when he is awake, and immediately after, sprayed positive smells to create some changes in his brain.

15:38 (Gunfire)

 So we slowly, overnight, used the fact that our brains and our memories are not fixed. They’re malleable. They change as we use them. So we make his brain remember something and override it, remember, and override it in his dream. And then when he wakes up, he again has no idea what happened, but suddenly he feels less of this anxiety when he is up. And this has been going on for a few months now with Nicholas.

we are pretty excited about that, and now we’re trying to see if there is a way to help other people in the same way by working with them when they are awake in one way and with the same brain when they are asleep.

And we are thinking about other ways to enhance experiences using the opportunity that your dream provides. For example, what if we can teach you things when you are asleep? So you go to sleep and you wake up knowing kung fu.

16:33 (Laughter)

Or two people sleep side by side, and we can share dreams simultaneously. Or just help you navigate your dream to a specific location.

A lot of things in our life are owed to dreams. The periodic table. Hitchcock’s movies. What if we can help you focus your dreams on something specific?

Or, I know there are a lot of engineers here. What if I can build a device that helps guarantee a positive sleep for everyone?

We are not there yet. But if there is one thing I learned from the last five years, it is that saying that something is impossible before you know it is a mistake.

Because science isn’t just about collecting facts, it’s also about enabling promises, hunches and even dreams.

17:18 Neuroscientists are now giving us a new tool to control our dreams, a new platform to create experiences on, a new canvas that flickers to life when we fall asleep.

So designers, perfumers, musicians, filmmakers can now use this to create new experiences. Because in the end, we are now able to, for the first time, help people change behavior and understand ourselves better by essentially teaching ourselves to dream bigger.

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