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Neuroscientists Can Now Read Your Dreams With a Simple Brain Scan

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge from a sleeping brain has long baffled scientists and philosophers alike.

For decades, scientists have associated dreaming with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a sleep stage in which the resting brain paradoxically generates high-frequency brain waves that closely resemble those of when we’re awake.

Yet dreaming isn’t exclusive to REM sleep.

A series of oddball reports also found signs of dreaming during non-REM deep sleep, when the brain is dominated by slow-wave activity—the opposite of an alert, active, conscious brain.

Now, thanks to a new study published in Nature Neuroscience, we may have an answer to the tricky dilemma.

By closely monitoring the brain waves of sleeping volunteers, a team of scientists at the University of Wisconsin pinpointed a local “hot spot” in the brain that fires up when we dream, regardless of whether a person is in non-REM or REM sleep.

“You can really identify a signature of the dreaming brain,” says study author Dr. Francesca Siclari.

What’s more, using an algorithm developed based on their observations, the team could accurately predict whether a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and—here’s the crazy part—roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

“[What we find is that] maybe the dreaming brain and the waking brain are much more similar than one imagined,” says Siclari.

The study not only opens the door to modulating dreams for PTSD therapy, but may also help researchers better tackle the perpetual mystery of consciousness.

“The importance beyond the article is really quite astounding,” says Dr. Mark Blagrove at Swansea University in Wales, who was not involved in the study.

The anatomy of sleep

During a full night’s sleep we cycle through different sleep stages characterized by distinctive brain activity patterns.

Scientists often use EEG to precisely capture each sleep stage, which involves placing 256 electrodes against a person’s scalp to monitor the number and size of brainwaves at different frequencies.

When we doze off for the night, our brains generate low-frequency activity that sweeps across the entire surface. These waves signal that the neurons are in their “down state” and unable to communicate between brain regions—that’s why low-frequency activity is often linked to the loss of consciousness.

These slow oscillations of non-REM sleep eventually transform into high-frequency activity, signaling the entry into REM sleep. This is the sleep stage traditionally associated with vivid dreaming—the connection is so deeply etched into sleep research that reports of dreamless REM sleep or dreams during non-REM sleep were largely ignored as oddities.

These strange cases tell us that our current understanding of the neurobiology of sleep is incomplete, and that’s what we tackled in this study, explain the authors.

Dream hunters

To reconcile these paradoxical results, Siclari and team monitored the brain activity of 32 volunteers with EEG and woke them up during the night at random intervals. The team then asked the sleepy participants whether they were dreaming, and if so, what were the contents of the dream. In all, this happened over 200 times throughout the night.

Rather than seeing a global shift in activity that correlates to dreaming, the team surprisingly uncovered a brain region at the back of the head—the posterior “hot zone”—that dynamically shifted its activity based on the occurrence of dreams.

Dreams were associated with a decrease in low-frequency waves in the hot zone, along with an increase in high-frequency waves that reflect high rates of neuronal firing and brain activity—a sort of local awakening, irrespective of the sleep stage or overall brain activity.

“It only seems to need a very circumscribed, a very restricted activation of the brain to generate conscious experiences,” says Siclari. “Until now we thought that large regions of the brain needed to be active to generate conscious experiences.”

That the hot zone leaped to action during dreams makes sense, explain the authors.

Previous work showed stimulating these brain regions with an electrode can induce feelings of being “in a parallel world.” The hot zone also contains areas that integrate sensory information to build a virtual model of the world around us. This type of simulation lays the groundwork of our many dream worlds, and the hot zone seems to be extremely suited for the job, say the authors.

If an active hot zone is, in fact, a “dreaming signature,” its activity should be able to predict whether a person is dreaming at any time. The authors crafted an algorithm based on their findings and tested its accuracy on a separate group of people.

“We woke them up whenever the algorithm alerted us that they were dreaming, a total of 84 times,” the researchers say.

Overall, the algorithm rocked its predictions with roughly 90 percent accuracy—it even nailed cases where the participants couldn’t remember the content of their dreams but knew that they were dreaming.

Dream readers

Since the hot zone contains areas that process visual information, the researchers wondered if they could get a glimpse into the content of the participants’ dreams simply by reading EEG recordings.

Dreams can be purely perceptual with unfolding narratives, or they can be more abstract and “thought-like,” the team explains.

Faces, places, movement and speech are all common components of dreams and processed by easily identifiable regions in the hot zone, so the team decided to focus on those aspects.

Remarkably, volunteers that reported talking in their dreams showed activity in their language-related regions; those who dreamed of people had their facial recognition centers activate.

This suggests that dreams recruit the same brain regions as experiences in wakefulness for specific contents,” says Siclari, adding that previous studies were only able to show this in the “twilight zone,” the transition between sleep and wakefulness. (Why be surprised? What other brain regions could be activated?)

Finally, the team asked what happens when we know we were dreaming, but can’t remember the specific details. As it happens, this frustrating state has its own EEG signature: remembering the details of a dream was associated with a spike in high-frequency activity in the frontal regions of the brain.

This raises some interesting questions, such as whether the frontal lobes are important for lucid dreaming, a meta-state in which people recognize that they’re dreaming and can alter the contents of the dream, says the team.

Consciousness arising

The team can’t yet explain what is activating the hot zone during dreams, but the answers may reveal whether dreaming has a biological purpose, such as processing memories into larger concepts of the world.

Mapping out activity patterns in the dreaming brain could also lead to ways to directly manipulate our dreams using non-invasive procedures such as transcranial direct-current stimulation.

Inducing a dreamless state could help people with insomnia, and disrupting a fearful dream by suppressing dreaming may potentially allow patients with PTSD a good night’s sleep.

Dr. Giulo Tononi, the lead author of this study, believes that the study’s implications go far beyond sleep.

“[W]e were able to compare what changes in the brain when we are conscious, that is, when we are dreaming, compared to when we are unconscious, during the same behavioral state of sleep,” he says.

During sleep, people are cut off from the environment. Therefore, researchers could hone in on brain regions that truly support consciousness while avoiding confounding factors that reflect other changes brought about by coma, anesthesia or environmental stimuli.

“This study suggests that dreaming may constitute a valuable model for the study of consciousness,” says Tononi.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

Now, using an algorithm, a team of scientists say they can predict if a person is dreaming with nearly 90 percent accuracy, and roughly parse out the content of those dreams.

Like islands jutting out of a smooth ocean surface, dreams puncture our sleep with disjointed episodes of consciousness. How states of awareness emerge…
singularityhub.com

Does it matter to Debate Machine Consciousness?

“I think therefore I am.”

“What about thinking? Here I make my discovery: thought exists; it alone cannot be separated from me.

I am; I exist – this is certain. But for how long?

For as long as I am thinking; for perhaps it could also come to pass that if I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist.

At this time I admit nothing that is not necessarily true.

I am therefore precisely nothing but a thinking thing; that is a mind, or intellect, or understanding, or reason – words of whose meanings I was previously ignorant.

Yet I am a true thing and am truly existing; but what kind of thing? I have said it already: a thinking thing.” – René Descartes 

In 1637, when he published, The Discourse on Method, René Descartes unleashed a philosophical breakthrough, which later became a fundamental principle that much of modern philosophy now stands upon.

Nearly 400 years later, if a machine says these five powerful words, “I think therefore I am,” does the statement still hold true?

If so, who then is this “I” that is doing the thinking?

In a recent talk, Ray Kurzweil showed the complexity of measuring machine consciousness, “We can’t just ask an entity, ‘Are you conscious?’ because we can ask entities in video games today, and they’ll say, ‘Yes, I’m conscious and I’m angry at you.

But we don’t believe them because they don’t have the subtle cues that we associate with really having that subjective state. My prediction that computers will pass the Turing test and be indistinguishable from humans by 2029 is that they really will have those convincing cues.”

If artificial intelligence becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence, how then will we determine which entities are, or are not, conscious—specifically, when consciousness is not quantifiable?

Though the word consciousness has many commonly held definitions, this question can be answered quite differently when filtered through the many existing philosophical and religious frameworks.

With two particularly conflicting viewpoints being the common Eastern and Western notions of what exactly consciousness is—and how it comes to exist.

At the heart of many Eastern philosophies is the belief that consciousness is our fundamental reality; it is what brings the physical world into existence.

By contrast, the Western notion of consciousness holds that it arises only at a certain level of development.

Looking at these two opposing belief systems, we can see that to answer, “What and who is conscious?” can pull drastically different responses.

“Fundamentally, there’s no scientific experiment that doesn’t have philosophical assumptions about the nature of consciousness,” Kurzweil says.

We’d like to have an objective scientific understanding of consciousness, but such a view remains elusive.

“Some scientists say, ‘Well, it’s just an illusion. We shouldn’t waste time with it,” Kurzweil says. “But that’s not my view because, as I say, morality is based on consciousness.”

Why does all this matter?

Because as technological evolution begins intersecting our biological evolution as a species, the lines between “human” and “non-human” entities will begin blurring more so than humanity has ever encountered, and a new era of identity, and the surrounding ethics and philosophy, will take center stage.

What happens if a non-human conscious entity travels into another region of the world where its consciousness is not believed to be real?

Or more broadly, how will we treat intelligent machines ethically as their intelligence approaches our own?

If morality is based on consciousness, does a machine become an “I” if it has one?

(If Morality is a set of behaviors disseminated by the power-to-be and communities are coaxed to follow suit, then an artificial intelligent consciousness is political by nature)

Note: It is Not a matter of morality: It is this lapse of time  of uncertainty we need to determine whether our act is Good or Bad. Give a machine the illusion of needing some time to decide and you can be fooled. 

“If artificial intelligence becomes indistinguishable from human intelligence, how then will we determine which entities are, or are not, conscious?”

“I think therefore I am.”
In 1637, when he published, The Discourse on Method, René Descartes unleashed a philosophical breakthrough, which later became a…
singularityhub.com

Era of Abundant Information and Fleeting Expertise

And how could we deeply learn anything of value?

How to learn is changing, and it’s changing fast.

In the past, we used to learn by doing — we called them apprenticeships.

Then the model shifted, and we learned by going to school.

Now, it’s going back to the apprenticeship again, but this time, you are both the apprentice and the master.

This post is about how to learn during exponential times, when information is abundant and expertise is fleeting.

Passion, Utility, Research and Focus

First, choosing what you want to learn and becoming great at it is tough.

As I wrote in my last post, doing anything hard and doing it well takes grit. (It takes 10,000 hours of doing to become talented in anything you like)

Here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years to help choose what you want to learn:

  1. Start with your passions: Focus on something you love, or learn a new skill in service of your passion. If you want to learn how to code because it will land you a high-paying job, you’re not going to have the drive to spend countless, frustrating hours debugging your code. If you want to become a doctor because your parents want you to, you’re not going to make it through med school. Focus on the things YOU love and do it because it’s YOUR choice. (Money is second in rank. The first is the passion that no money can buy. Adonis49 quote)
  2. Make it useful: Time is the scarcest resource. While you can spend the time learning for the sake of learning, I think learning should be a means to an end. Without a target, you’ll miss every time. Figure out what you want to do, and then identify the skills you need to acquire to accomplish that goal. (And the end of learning?)
  3. Read, watch and analyze: Read everything. Read all the time . (The writing of just the experts in the field?) Start with the experts. Read the material they write or blog. Watch their videos, their interviews. Do you agree with them? Why?
  4. Talk to people: Once you’re done reading, actually talk to real human beings that are doing what you want to do. Do whatever you can to reach them. Ask for their advice. You’ll be shocked by what you can learn this way. (Connectivity part of the learning process?)
  5. Focus on your strengths: Again, time is precious. You can’t be a doctor, lawyer, coder, writer, rocket scientist, and rock star all at the same time… at least not right now. Focus on what you are good at and enjoy most and try to build on top of those skills. Many people, especially competitive people, tend to feel like they need to focus on improving the things they are worst at doing. This is a waste of time. Instead, focus on improving the things you are best at doing — you’ll find this to be a much more rewarding and lucrative path. (When it becomes an automatic reaction, there is no need to focus much?)

Learn by Doing

There is no better way to learn than by doing. (After you learned the basics?)

I’m a fan of the “apprentice” model. Study the people who have done it well and then go work for them.

If they can’t (or won’t) pay you, work for free until you are good enough that they’ll need to hire you. (For how long? Slaves get paid somehow)

Join a startup doing what you love — it’s much cheaper than paying an expensive tuition, and a hell of a lot more useful.

I don’t think school (or grad school) is necessarily the right answer anymore.

Here’s one reason why:

This week I visited the Hyperloop Technologies headquarters in Los Angeles (full disclosure: I am on the board of the company).

The interim CEO and CTO Brogan Bambrogan showed me around the office, and we stopped at one particularly impressive-looking, massive machine (details confidential).

As it turns out, the team of Hyperloop engineers who had designed, manufactured, tested, redesigned, remanufactured, and operated this piece of equipment did so in 11 weeks, for pennies on the dollar.

At MIT, Stanford or CalTech, building this machine would have been someone’s PhD thesis…

Except that the PhD candidate would have spent three years doing the same amount of work, and written a paper about it, rather than help to redesign the future of transportation.

Meanwhile, the Hyperloop engineers created this tech (and probably a half-dozen other devices) in a fraction of the time while creating value for a company that will one day be worth billions.

Full Immersion and First Principles

You have to be fully immersed if you want to really learn.

Connect the topic with everything you care about — teach your friends about it, only read things that are related to the topic, surround yourself with it.

Make learning the most important thing you can possibly do and connect to it in a visceral fashion.

As part of your full immersion, dive into the very basic underlying principles governing the skill you want to acquire.

This is an idea Elon Musk (CEO of Tesla, SpaceX) constantly refers to: “The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths … and then reason up from there.”

You can’t skip the fundamentals — invest the time to learn the basics before you get to the advanced stuff.

Experiment, Experiment, Experiment

Experiment, fail, experiment, fail, and experiment. (The problem is that few disciplines teach you Experimental Designing Mind and fundamentals)

One of Google’s innovation principles and mantras is: “Never fail to fail.”

Don’t be afraid if you are really bad at the beginning: you learn most from your mistakes.

When Elon hires people, he asks them to describe a time they struggled with a hard problem. “When you struggle with a problem, that’s when you understand it,” he says, “Anyone who’s struggled hard with a problem never forgets it.”

(You struggle because you fail to listen to the new perspectives of other people to tackle the problem)

Digital Tools

We used to have to go to school to read textbooks and gain access to expert teachers and professors.

Nowadays, literally all of these resources are available online for free.

There are hundreds of free education sites like Khan Academy, Udemy, or Udacity.

There are thousands of MOOCs (massive online open courses) from the brightest experts from top universities on almost every topic imaginable.

Want to learn a language? Download an app like Duolingo (or even better, pack up your things and move to that country).

Want to learn how to code? Sign up for a course on CodeAcademy or MIT Open Courseware.

The resources are there and available — you just have to have the focus and drive to find them and use them.

Finally…The Next Big Shift in Learning

In the future, the next big shift in learning will happen as we adopt virtual worlds and augmented reality.

It will be the next best thing to “doing” — we’ll be able to simulate reality and experiment (perhaps beyond what we can experiment with now) in virtual and augmented environments.

Add that to the fact that we’ll have an artificial intelligence tutor by our side, showing us the ropes and automatically customizing our learning experience.

Patsy Z shared this link via Singularity Hub

As usual, the best advise on “Learning” from the man himself Peter H. Diamandis.

Learning in an Era of Abundant Information and Fleeting Expertise?
How to learn is changing, and it’s changing fast. In the past, we used to learn by doing — we called them apprenticeships.
Then the model shifted, and we…
singularityhub.com

Think Your Conscious Brain Directs Your Actions? Think Again

Think your deliberate, guiding, conscious thoughts are in charge of your actions?

Think again.

In a provocative new paper in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, a team led by Dr. Ezequiel Morsella at San Francisco State University came to a startling conclusion: Consciousness is no more than a passive machine running one simple algorithm — to serve up what’s already been decided, and take credit for the decision.

conscious-decision-making-dethroned-2Rather than a stage conductor, it’s just a tiny part of what happens in the brain that makes us “aware.”

All the real work goes on under the hood — in our unconscious minds.

The Passive Frame Theory, as Morsella calls it, is based on decades of experimental data observing how people perceive and generate motor responses to odors.

It’s not about perception (“I smell a skunk”), but about response (running from a skunk).

The key to cracking what consciousness does in the brain is to work backwards from an observable physical action, explains Morsella in his paper.

If this isn’t your idea of “consciousness,” you’re not alone.

Traditionally, theorists tried to tackle the enigmatic beast by looking at higher levels of human consciousness, for example, self-consciousness — the knowledge that you exist — or theory of mind — that you and others have differing beliefs, intents, desires and perspectives.

While fascinating on a philosophical level, this approach is far too complex to explain on a fundamental level what consciousness is for.

Instead, Morsella believes that studying basic consciousness ­— the awareness of a color, an urge, a sharp pain — is what will lead to a breakthrough.

If a creature has an experience of any kind — something it is like to be that creature ­ — then it has this form of consciousness,” Morsella said in an email to Singularity Hub. It doesn’t have to be high-level, and “ it’s unlikely to be unique to humans.”

The Passive Frame Theory goes like this:

 Nearly all the decisions and thoughts that need to be made throughout the day are performed by many parts of the unconscious brain, well below our level of awareness. (The associative autonomous sub-branches of the hierarchy in our nervous system?)

conscious-decision-making-dethroned-8When the time comes to physically act on a decision, various unconscious processes deliver their opinions to a central “hub,” like voters congregating at town hall.

The hub listens in on the conversation, but doesn’t participate; all it does is provide a venue for differing opinions to integrate and decide on a final outcome. (Integrative behaviour seek the higher levels in the hierarchy for holistic resolutions)

Once the unconscious makes a final decision on how to physically act (or react), the hub — consciousness — executes that work and then congratulates itself for figuring out a tough problem.

In a way, the unconscious mind is like a group of talented ghostwriters working on a movie script for a celebrated screenwriter.

If all goes smoothly, they bypass the screenwriter and deliver the final product straight to the next level.

If, on the other hand, conflict arises — say the ghostwriters differ in their ideas on how the story should unfold — their argument may reach the ears of that famous screenwriter, who becomes aware of the problem, but nevertheless sits and waits for the writers to figure it all out. Once that happens, the screenwriter hands off the script, and gets all the credit.

Similar to the screenwriter, consciousness doesn’t debate or solve conflict in our heads; consciousness needs to be “on” in order to relay the final outcome — so it is essential — but it doesn’t participate in the nitty-gritty of decision-making.

Why did consciousness emerge in this way? Morsella thinks the answer is evolution.

Like all animals, humans try to conserve mental energy and automate our biological processes.

Most of the time we run on instincts, reflexes and minute-to-minute immediate thoughts. Take breathing as an example — it’s completely automated, to the point that consciously trying to maintain a steady rhythm is surprisingly hard. In this case, conscious thought just bogs the process down.

Unlike most animals, however, humans gradually evolved into complex social beings capable of cultivating our intelligence for language and other higher faculties.

Faced with increasingly difficult decisions on how to act, we suddenly needed a middleman to slow our unconscious mind down. (The nurturing process that got ingrained into our genes?)

conscious-decision-making-dethroned-4 Say you find yourself underwater; your instinct is to breathe, but better judgment — delivered by an unconscious cry of alarm (“don’t breathe!”) — tells you that you would drown. Your unconscious mind orders your consciousness to activate the muscles that will allow you to hold your breath and keep you alive. Consciousness triggers an adaptive motion.

The power of our unconscious mind doesn’t stop at basic bodily functions.

In the paper, Morsella cites language — a high-level, complex and perhaps distinctively human faculty — as another product of the unconscious mind.

When you speak, you’re only consciously aware of a few words at a time, and that is only so you can direct the muscles around your mouth and tongue to form those words. What you’re saying is prescribed under the hood; your conscious mind is simply following a script.

Morsella acknowledges that his theory is unconventional and difficult to accept.

“The number one reason it’s taken so long to reach this conclusion is because people confuse what consciousness is for with what they think they use it for,” Morsella said in a press release accompanying his paper.

But none of this theory takes away our treasured qualities as sentient human beings — our imagination, our language, our sense of self and others — it just points to the unconscious mind as the main player on our brainy fields.

In fact, Morsella hopes his theory could lead to new ideas about intrusive thoughts or obsessions that often occur in mental disorders.

“The passivity of consciousness explains why we are aware of urges and thoughts that are maladaptive,” Morsella said to Singularity Hub, because it doesn’t know that it shouldn’t be thinking about these thoughts.

“The system is less all-knowing and purposeful than we thought.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com


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