Oneirology is the scientific study of dreams. It’s widely considered a protoscience, or a promising field of study that has yet to be firmly established. New research could change all that though. In fact, it could change a lot of things. What if technology existed that could read dreams? What if these “natural movies” could read entire minds?
What are Natural Movies?
Scientists at UC Berkeley recently created a computer program that can “translate brain wave patterns into a moving image.” They call these images “Natural Movies.”
In order to get these Natural Movies, subjects watched hours of Youtube videos inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. In the process, the MRI recorded the ways in which the subjects’ brains processed the visual imagery. The research team used this information to develop a computer program “that matched features of the videos – like colors, shapes, and movements – with patterns of brain activity.”
Afterward, the program was tested in reverse. The team “fed the computer 18 million one-second YouTube clips that the participants had never seen.” The program then attempted to reconstruct the clips using other YouTube scenes as well as the information provided by the subjects’ brain activity. This video shows some of these results. The movie on the left is a series of Youtube clips. The movie on the right is the reconstructed Natural Movie. The Natural Movie is blurry because it layers “all the YouTube clips that matched the subject’s brain activity pattern.”
“This is a major leap toward reconstructing internal imagery. We are opening a window into the movies in our minds.” ~ Jack Gallant, Professor of Psychology
The Future of Natural Movies?
Of course, this research is in its infancy. The UC Berkeley study only measured a small amount of total brain activity. More models will be needed to encompass the entire visual system and more computers will be required to analyze the data. And ultimately, our ability to record and watch inner imagery like dreams, memories, or thoughts will depend on “how close those abstract visual experiences are to the real thing.” Still, it looks promising.
“If you can decode movies people saw, you might be able to decode things in the brain that are movie-like but have no real-world analog, like dreams.” ~ Jack Gallant
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
This research is straight out of a science fiction novel and could end up having enormous ramifications on life as we know it. Natural movies could enable paralyzed individuals to communicate movements through visual thoughts, allowing machines to make those movements a reality. The Pensieve from the Harry Potter series, which enabled one to store and recall memories, could become a reality.
Unfortunately, natural movies could also become a nightmare. It might be used in harmful ways we can’t even begin to imagine. Even the researchers themselves seem a bit nervous about the whole thing.
“It is possible that decoding brain activity could have serious ethical and privacy implications downstream in, say, the 30-year time frame. As an analogy, consider the current debates regarding availability of genetic information. Genetic sequencing is becoming cheaper by the year, and it will soon be possible for everyone to have their own genome sequenced. This raises many issues regarding privacy and the accessibility of individual genetic information. The authors believe strongly that no one should be subjected to any form of brain-reading process involuntarily, covertly, or without complete informed consent. ~ Shinji Nishimoto, An T. Vu, Thomas Naselaris, Yuval Benjamini, Bin Yu & Jack L. Gallant: Reconstructing Visual Experiences from Brain Activity Evoked by Natural Movies
Will this research benefit mankind? Or will it lead to a future straight out of Minority Report? Only time will tell.