Awakening to the world of dreams

A scene from the movie 'Inception' starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

A scene from the movie 'Inception' starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Thane Burnett, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:10 PM ET

Go ahead and pinch yourself.

Yes, you're reading these lines. Chances are you're not in a Total Recall dream state or a hallucinating fly or plugged into a world run by machines -- though we've now robbed you of the fantasy that you're "the one."

But the veil that separates sleep from awake is getting pretty thin these days.

It goes beyond findings this past week, published in the journal Dreaming, that those who sleep on their stomachs are more likely to have erotic dreams. Or a less intimate study by New York's Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute that levels of the hormone melatonin, important to dozing off, drop if you spend time peering at a backlit phone or hand-held tablet just before you hit the pillow.

No, this about the means to climb directly into dreams.

Researchers, including computational neuroscientist Moran Cerf at the California Institute of Technology, are looking at how people can control specific single neurons while awake. That remarkable science, one day, might help us create a mind-machine interface that could tap into our mysterious sister-world of dreams.

Though the first pioneering steps past the threshold have begun.

Neuroscientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have now successfully manipulated the dreams of rats.

And the possibilities are almost beyond lucid imagination.

Back in 1991, Matt Wilson, now a researcher at MIT's Picower Institute for Learning and Memory, was collecting brain impulses from rats as they ran through a maze. He left them hooked up, even as he became lost in some lab work. But he soon realized that as the rodents slept, he could see brain activity patterns were the same as if they were still running the maze.

They were repeating routes and solving puzzles.

It was proof the mind does more than general housekeeping as we slumber. It problem solves in safety not usually found during waking hours.

And it was groundbreaking work.

Now Wilson and his team have managed to take things further. They're inserting decisions -- the basic engineering idea behind the 2010 Christopher Nolan movie Inception -- into the dreams of lab rats.

By replaying an audio-cue learned during their waking hours -- different prompts to turn either right or left for a reward of food -- the MIT team is taking advantage of the way the brain's hippocampus turns real events into memory.

By replaying the audio cues as the rats slept, the rodents seemed to change direction in their dreams. The scientists could steer the tiny subjects right or left.

What scientists don't know is what the staging of a rat's dream actually looks like. And Wilson wonders if it spent time with other rodents, would they be included as actors in its dream.

"That would be fascinating to know," he said.

A human can problem-solve while dreaming, but the environment may look very different than what the real-life puzzle looked like. We knit pieces like bits of yarn collected during our days. A man worried about searching for a new job may dream about flipping sofa cushions while hunting for the car keys.

In the case of a lab rat -- whose world has been sparse and bare -- what possible bells and whistles can it insert into a dream?

In Inception, experts were able to enter and engineer dreams.

Wilson said today, given the right situation and influences, scientists could nudge human dreams in different directions.

"It's still a far cry from creating a dream," he said, adding they have proven they can: "Influence how the car drives through the (imagined) roads -- but the roads are already there.

"We're dictating how we move through it."

Though, sure, there is a slight chance they have travelled far beyond that. And these words are being artificially inserted into a dream you're plugged into right now.


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