Cerf Moran screenshot from TED2016 talk courtesy English-Video.net
Dr. Moran Cerf holds a TED talk about hacking dreams based on his neuroscience research in 2016. Credit: Courtesy English-Video.net

The human brain constantly adapts to our environment and to what we do. At night, our brains play content that lures us into the captive theater of sleep, but we sometimes struggle to decipher the meaning behind and purpose of our dreams.

Hacker-turned-neuroscientist Moran Cerf explains how science could control our dreams in the future. A professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University, Cerf worked as a hacker for nearly a decade prior to his academic career, breaking into leading financial and government institutes to test and improve their security.

His May 2 lecture for the Mind Science Foundation will focus on Dreams: The Brain’s Movie Theater. The talk at the Pearl Stable starts at 6:30 p.m. To purchase tickets, click here.

Cerf’s hacking background led him to pursue nontraditional ways of investigating the brain, using methods and techniques that benefit from heavy computational skills and novel research tools in his study of memory-specific brain cells. He found that our sleeping brains retain some of the content encountered when we are awake, and that our dreams can and do influence our waking actions. Neuroscientists are exploring new tools to help us control our dreams – and ultimately our behavior.

Cerf spoke with the Rivard Report via Skype from France about hacking what he calls the “ultimate black box” – the brain.

Rivard Report: How do you study the brain to determine the mechanisms behind dreams?

Moran Cerf: There are many tools, but the main tool I use is known as single neuron recording, which is essentially eavesdropping on the activity of individual brain cells by implanting electrodes deep inside the brains of patients undergoing neurosurgery for clinical purposes.

Basically we open the brain and insert electrodes deep inside. This is done on patients during surgery for clinical purposes, with the patient’s prior consent. We piggyback on that surgery and insert the electrodes, sometimes hundreds of them.

With these implanted electrodes we can then parse the brain’s code to study behavior, emotion, decision-making, and dreams.
We conceive of our brain activity as different states: Waking consciousness, thinking, or sleeping activity like dreaming. But from the brain’s point of view it doesn’t know the difference between dreaming and consciously thinking – it’s all a brain process. So we observe how single neurons act and in this way, we can capture their actions.

RR: Your research seeks to understand the underlying mechanisms of our psychology to address questions such as, “At what point are we aware of the precepts underlying our consciousness?” and “How much free will do we have in making decisions?”
Carl Jung said, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” How does the concept of free intersect with your study of the brain’s dreams?

MC: We look at how the brain acts in different ways when you’re awake. When we do, sometimes we can find areas of your brain that are active or lighting up before you become aware of that sensation or experience. We focus on that gap between when your brain is lighting up in areas when it is aware that you are hungry, for example, and when you consciously become aware of that feeling of hunger.

We tend to think that everything we think and do is instantaneous. However, what we discovered is that your brain knows before you are consciously aware. In the future we will be looking at that gap and the meaning underlying that gap between the brain’s awareness and our conscious awareness.

RR: Jung studied lucid dreaming as a technique to be learned to help the dreamer control his or her dreams. How does lucid dreaming compare with the neuroscience approach to controlling dream content?

MC: Jung was a psychologist – he looked at dreams as content you recall only after you wake up and you reflect on them. There’s a lot of value in that, but he was limited by the technology of his time. Usually you cannot remember all the content in your dream or you fill in the gaps of what you don’t remember with a story that is not a complete version of your dream.

The technology we use today allows scientists to examine what is happening to the brain when you are dreaming. We can see inside the dream’s content and record what you remember and what you forget. More importantly, we can see why your brain chose to remember some parts and why it chose to forget other parts. For example, why did we remember the monster but forget the fact that your mother was there [in the dream]?

We can see how the same cells in your brain act differently when you are asleep and when you are awake. Think of the ocean and how you experience it differently under times of low and high tide. You are still in the same boat but it is an entirely different experience depending on the ocean’s tide.

RR: What do you see as potential applications from this research?

MC: One of them is [using this scientific approach to] explain our psyche. Jung and Freud were not after our dreams, they were after our psyche. Now we can enter the psychology of your psyche and help people understand it better. Second, we can help patients with sleep disorders and triage the underlying causes so that they get better and recover.

Third, we can help you navigate your dreams much like the way you chose to watch a movie. When you sleep your brain generates a dream without your involvement and like a movie you “watch” your dream. When we can toy with your dreams, you can choose a dream much like choosing a movie, and choose the experience you would like to have in your dream.

This is helpful for people recovering from trauma and who want to use their dreams to process something bad that happened in the past. If you lost a loved one, you can relive memories from your life with that person and revisit lost loved ones in your dreams. This is the ultimate virtual reality, because it’s more than a movie – it feels real and you get to experience time with your loved one again.

RR: What is the one takeaway you’d like your audience to remember after your lecture?

MC: The main take-home message is that we have a new tool that was not accessible over the past 100 years, but now is available. Dreams were not accessible before, but over the last 10 years we now have a means to look into your dreams. We can record them, manipulate them, and access them like never before.

We can change your dreams and in doing so, we can change the awake version of you.

Iris Gonzalez writes about technology, life science and veteran affairs.