Since the beginning of human history, we have wondered why we dream and what the content of our dreams mean. People have often looked at dreams as a source of divine inspiration, as a guide for decision making, and as a doorway into our subconscious. But regardless of the significance placed on dream content at any point in history, dreams themselves have remained a mystery.
The first major leap forward in dream research occurred in conjunction with the detection of rapid eye movement sleep in 1953. This discovery reignited interest in dream research which has continued throughout the last 60 years. During that timeframe, researchers linked vivid dreaming to REM sleep, determined that on average we spend 2 hours each night dreaming, and have shown that brain waves during REM sleep look similar to brain waves while awake. But despite advances in technology and extensive research, we still can’t connect brain activity to specific dreams until now.
Researchers at the Charité hospital in Berlinhave developed a method for measuring dream content that enables the analysis of brain activity during the dream state. The key to this breakthrough is the use of lucid dreamers, people who are aware while dreaming, and can actively change the content and direction of their dreams. The findings of this team were published in the journal Current Biology and show that the brain activity observed during the performance of a specific activity while awake and the brain activity observed while the participant dreamed about performing that activity were the same.
In order to obtain their results, the research team recruited lucid dreamers and gave them specific instructions for what actions to perform once they entered the REM stage of sleep. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and EEGs, the team monitored the participant’s brain activity as they performed the prescribed actions. This methodology allowed the team to identify when the participant entered REM sleep and to tie the brain functions being observed to the actions the participant was dreaming about performing.
The script required that once the dreamer entered a lucid state, they were to dream that they were clenching their right fist and then their left fist repeatedly for a period of ten seconds. This allowed the team to see that the part of the brain that is active when someone clenches their fists while they are awake was activated when participants dreamed that were clenching their fists. This breakthrough proves that it is possible to measure dream content and provides a new understanding of how dreams impact our brain patterns.
Additional tests conducted using a different subject and a different technology achieved the same result. This subsequent test also indicated that the parts of our brain required to plan movement were activated during the lucid dreaming experiment. This means our brains are actively involved in the activities and experiences going on when we dream.