Visions from the mind’s eye: The art and science of dreams

Humanity’s gift for finding meaning in the unknown make dreams an ever-present theme in our creative works — and our scientific inquiry.

Our dreams aren't bound by the logic of the real world, but that doesn't mean we can't try to understand how they work.   Pexels  (public domain)

Our dreams aren't bound by the logic of the real world, but that doesn't mean we can't try to understand how they work. Pexels (public domain)

Mystified by the inner workings of the brain, humanity sources countless creative and scientific discoveries to dreams, including everything from the world’s most cherished paintings to the discovery of the chemical structure of benzene. Where it was once common practise to cite otherworldly sources as the cause for such elusive moments of insight, our modern understanding of the brain has illustrated a clearer picture of dreaming. Artists, scientists and the curious alike continue to be moved by this natural function towards original, meaningful discovery. 

Oneirology, the scientific study of dreams, had its inception with the invention of the electroencephalogram (EEG), a device that records neuronal activity in the brain through electrodes placed on the scalp. From the device’s recordings, rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep was discovered in 1953, wherein dreams are now known to be primarily experienced and recalled.

Several decades later, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) also came into use, allowing researchers to look even deeper into the brain by monitoring changes in metabolic activity across regions over time. These changes can be compared in order to draw conclusions about the underlying mechanisms for a particular cognitive process. Although there are limitations to what both technologies can reveal at a neuronal level, they are reliable and accurate measures of brain activity and have been instrumental for grappling with age-old questions about dreaming.

‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ by Vincent Van Gogh   Wikipedia Commons  (public domain)

‘Starry Night over the Rhone’ by Vincent Van Gogh Wikipedia Commons (public domain)

So what exactly does the mind’s eye see while dreaming, and is it ever possible to reconstruct it? Would we see a different starry night than the ones so famously painted by Vincent Van Gogh — who once remarked “I dream my painting and then I paint my dream”? The Dutch post-impressionist artist, whose life was marked by turmoil, produced his iconic dreamlike night scenes towards his final years of painting, a time during which he was known to have experienced nightmares, among other physical ailments. Perhaps his impressions of stars ethereally piercing through thick swirls of darkness reflected something of his own internal visualizations, and a self-described fascination for seeing dreams and reality woven into one. But beyond these kinds of examples of artistic visualizations, extracting images from inner, subjective states of consciousness has been a topic mostly for science fiction, until only recently.

In 2012, research conducted by Professor Jack Gallant at Berkeley University demonstrated that images can be reconstructed from the brain’s internal percept and converted into rough pictures, by showing images to subjects while their brain activity was recorded by fMRI. An algorithm was used to reconstruct a rough impression of the brain’s signals based on a comparison made to a database of several million YouTube video clips.


The image above on the right above might look like modern art, but it is a representation of a person’s internal visual percept, based on a composite of thousands of Youtube image clips. Based on the research of Jack Gallant.


A research team in Japan, led by Yukiyasu Kamitani at the ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories, is taking this research further by decoding visual imagery during sleep. Participants’ brain activity is recorded while sleeping, after which they are woken to recall their dreams. Key dream elements can then be compared against activated brain regions, and an algorithm is trained to adjust to the subject’s unique brain patterns, to create a probable visualization of the dreamer’s world. None of this is to say that dreams can now be ‘read’ per se, but rather that the connection between neural correlates of brain activity and subjective human experience is becoming clearer, and this indeed prompts many thought provoking questions.

It is fair to ask whether technology could ever fully account for dreaming, given the distinctions between neurological mechanisms and the experience of consciousness. Societal consensus seems to suggest that dreams reveal something at the heart of what it means to be human. Such ideas have been explored by science fiction relentlessly, often portraying dreams as a hallmark feature of conscious, sentient beings. Dreams then are a sort of evidence for a soul — for lack of another word — intangible proof that one is the driver of their own non-mechanistic destiny. The capacity to dream symbolizes what makes us distinct from the very machines we have created to decipher our own minds.

Still from 'Ghost in the Shell' by Mamoru Oshii, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow.   Source

Still from 'Ghost in the Shell' by Mamoru Oshii, based on the manga by Masamune Shirow. Source

Japanese cyberpunk cult classic Ghost in the Shell exemplifies the fears and fascinations that such questions bring to the popular psyche. An animated film adapted from a manga series set in the fictitious future city of New Port, the story portrays a world where humans and machines operate analogously and people are technologically interconnected in such a way that brains can be hacked, ostensibly obscuring the biological, categorically-constructed parameters used to define the human experience. In this world, humans are distinguished from technology by having a ‘ghost’ within their shell. This kind of story narrative is in line with cherished notions that our thoughts and dreams are unique and irreplaceable.

Where is the boundary between human and machine when the differences between the two become more philosophical than physical? As sentient entities, we often refer to our own self-awareness as a confirmation of being. This process, also known as metacognition, is especially relevant to lucid dreaming, the experience of being aware of oneself and conscious in a dream — an experience which becomes a kind of window into the inner workings of the brain, free from the influence of the outside world taken through the senses.

Interestingly, brain scans show that subjects with a high disposition for lucidity may have greater grey matter volume in the frontopolar cortex, compared to those with low lucidity. This area of the brain is associated with mechanisms active during thought monitoring, or reflexive thinking. Lucid dreaming highlights a fascinating reality as far as the brain is concerned: that neurons activate in a similar way as they do while a person is awake and processing sensory information. Therefore, while what we see and experience in dreams isn’t real in a strict sense, the emotions and neural firings attached to such experiences certainly are.

Still from Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil’s existential drama 'Abre Los Ojos'.   Source

Still from Alejandro Amenábar and Mateo Gil’s existential drama 'Abre Los Ojos'. Source

Depictions of lucidity in popular culture tend to express a collective psychological fear of this natural but experientially rare state of consciousness. Ready comparisons are drawn to delusion and lost self identity in surreal storylines such as acclaimed Spanish film Abre los Ojos (remade for English audiences as Vanilla Sky), where a cryogenically frozen playboy-turned-deformed outcast seemingly floats through a labyrinthine confusion of his own heartbreaking memories, leading to his own chimerical reawakening into a new reality — an extended second life. To experience prolonged existence through a dream seemingly suggests a rejection of reality, a kind of tragic banishment to a borderland realm reserved only for the most irretrievable of lost souls.

In all of its permutations, dreaming certainly grips the spirit of the times, as demonstrated by its prevalence as a theme in popular culture, but what impact does exposure to technology and media have on dreams? A study of archival analysis of dream reports since the 1940s revealed a sharp generational contrast, dividing people between those who dreamt mostly in black and white and those who dreamt in colour. The proposed explanation for the divide was the advent of television as a primary source of entertainment, as the transition to Technicolor screens happened around the same time that dreaming in colour became more frequent: in the 1960s. Researcher Eva Murzyn observed that television exposure during critical developmental stages may have been the reason for this effect — however, it can’t be ruled out that this media exposure rather altered the way the dream was constructed upon waking. 

From These Woods, HD video still, 2014 by Really Large Numbers.  Reproduced with permission.

From These Woods, HD video still, 2014 by Really Large Numbers. Reproduced with permission.

Dreaming continues to bear influence in the art community as much now as it did in the time of Van Gogh and earlier artists. Contemporary artists Julia Oldham and Chad Stayrook, collaboratively known as Really Large Numbers, provide an example of a thought provoking artistic take on the dream state, as imagined from a 21st century perspective. They achieve the task of capturing its elusive nature through their own conceptual framework and language, documenting their experience of a shared dream thread, which, described by Julia, felt “even like there was a direct path of communication between [herself and Chad] through dreams.”

Their projects have explored themes of mysticism, technology and non-local communication, with a stated intention to “blur the boundaries between the Real and the Unreal.” Julia voices an observation reflecting the scientific curiosity behind her collaborative pieces in remarking: “I think our dreams can also help us make decisions because they come from somewhere so deep inside us, from a really honest place”.

All theories and perspectives aside, it can be said in the least that dreams do constitute some kind of reworking of information taken in from waking life, reconstructing our lived environments and experiences. If we can acknowledge this much to be true, then dreams must bear some meaning and significance to an individual beyond that of merely randomly firing neurons; to say any less would be to also dismiss lived experience to some extent. And if dreams are equal to any other perceptual encounter so far as our own brains are concerned, we perhaps lose something in their dissipation upon waking, lest “all those moments [would] be lost in time, like tears in rain”, as Roy the human replicant concludes in the cult classic film Blade Runner, before his life becomes involuntarily retired. Because what, after all, is that darkness we call death but another kind of dreamless sleep marking one more boundary for what it is to be human?