Dreams into Movies


Electrodes connected to a sleeping person’s head, lab-coated scientists monitoring a computer screen for subconscious activity—the ability to watch somebody’s dreams is like something out of a sci-fi movie. Researchers at UT-Austin, in conjunction with other universities, are developing technology that could do just that.

The technology behind bodily tracking of dreams is the electromyography (EMG) sensor. Bodily actions in dreams send related nerve signals to the muscles involved in the dream behavior. Through data on your sleeping muscle movements, scientists can figure out how you were moving in your dream.

UT Sleep Lab experimenters are using EMG sensors to detect movement activity in muscles during sleep. They can then decipher and reconstruct movement during dreams that your muscle movements represented, recreating basic dream narratives from the data.

To record the subject’s brain activity while sleeping, the subject sleeps in an MRI scanner, wearing a brainwave headband with electrodes glued to the throat, legs, arms, and wrists. The real challenge comes with interpreting this data into visual and audio formats, notes Andrew Dunn, the director of UT’s Center for Emerging Imaging Technologies.

“The first part, about simply doing the recording, there’s been a lot more progress on that. [But] the kinds of signals that are actually recorded,” Dunn says, “are not the same thing as what we perceive.”

Currently, they are able to record a simple dream and project it onto a computer screen. For example, the subject could train him or herself to dream about a tree, and the images and sounds associated with the dream could be recorded and played.

“There’s been some reports of being able to use various types of imaging during dreams, and then taking that data and trying to reconstruct dreams,” Dunn says.

Dream speech is detected with electronic sensors placed on the voice box and other muscles involved in talking. The challenge for dream speech recording is the same as for visual image interpretation—in order to recognize brain images or spoken words and sentences in dreams, the software needs to be trained on each person’s voice and word patterns.

Dream walking and running send signals to the legs and feet; waving, lifting, and grasping sends impulses to the arm, wrist, and hands; and even listening to sounds in a dream sends signals to the middle ear. All three pieces of speech, movement, and visuals must come together before a real movie with action and sound can be taken from our dreams. The application of this technology is possibly beneficial to the treatment of neuromuscular diseases, as researchers learn more about peripheral systems and their link to brain function.

But technological advances are sometimes a double-edged sword, and ethical questions come up in some of the possible uses of dream technology. Once dream technology is able to fully encompass a visual, audio, and movement-generated experience, our dreams are no longer private. Ethically, it gives Dunn some pause.

“It raises all kinds of questions, because what happens in our brain is really private information,” he says.

Still, it may be a while before we are able to watch a movie made from our dreams, or have to fear the government peeking into our heads. President Obama’s BRAIN Initiative is pushing to expand our knowledge of the brain through neurological studies and imaging technology, which helps to speed up the process. But for dream imaging technology, research is tedious and it could be years before all the components of making a movie from dreams can be synthesized.

“We’re at least a decade away [from what you’re picturing],” Dunn says.

Image by Gavin Clarke via Flickr.


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