Reliving Childhood Dreams While You're Awake? Electric Brain Stimulation Makes 'Déjà-Rêvé' Possible

Monday, 12 March 2018 - 4:04PM
Monday, 12 March 2018 - 4:04PM
Reliving Childhood Dreams While You're Awake? Electric Brain Stimulation Makes 'Déjà-Rêvé' Possible
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Image credit: YouTube
Dreams always have a feeling of impermanence to them.

You might recall a few particularly vivid dreams for a while, but most of the time, a dream will fade from memory after you've been awake for only a few moments. It's hard to keep track of these fleeting imagined scenarios, which is why some people like to keep dream diaries in an effort to recall what their brains were doing while they were asleep.

Apparently, though, these dreams aren't necessarily always gone forever. A new academic review has found that it's possible to jolt the brain into recalling a dormant dream experience through the right stimuli, alongside a good old fashioned electric shock.

Scientists love zapping people's brains to see what happens, and this time, it's involved helpfully allowing people to relive their childhood nightmares. Let's not think too hard about the mad science implications of this discovery.

This new review, published in the journal Brain Stimulation, analyzed and categorized experiences recorded in 23 previous practical studies in which electrical brain stimulation produced wacky results. From this, the scientists involved have come up with three main categories of what's called déjà-rêvé, the experience of suddenly remembering a forgotten dream.

The first category of these experiences is the most fun (or terrifying, depending on your experience). "Episodic-like" instances of déjà-rêvé involve participants suddenly vividly reliving dreams from years ago that they'd completely forgotten about.

Based on one participant's account of his experience, it sounds fairly bittersweet:

Opening quote
"Doctor: 'What did you feel?' Patient: 'Something that was in my dreams…Well, actually it was with a friend. We read a comic…And in fact, it was a nightmare. And then after there is a big beetle coming.' Doctor: 'Was it a nightmare you had long ago?' Patient: 'Yes…I was 3 to 4 years old.'"
Closing quote

Well, that certainly is intriguing. On the one hand, it'd be fun to be able to unlock dreams from all that time ago, but if these dreams are primarily noteworthy because they were traumatic for us as children, we might not want to delve back into them.

Nevertheless, this proves that the human brain not only stores old dreams for a period of time, but the brightest and most noteworthy of these dreams can be archived for decades. As with many memories, often the brain's inability to recall something isn't due to a lack of storage, but the fact that the neural pathways can grow dim if not used regularly, essentially allowing old memories to be misfiled.

The second type of déjà-rêvé, "familiarity-like" experiences, are less exact—the participant might not be able to recall exactly what happened in their dream, but, like déjà-vu, they'll know that they've experienced something similar before, as an example from the paper shows:

Opening quote
"Well, when I started to read, I had a feeling of déjà-rêvé. I don't know if I have dreamed about it last night. I thought of something I dreamed. And I had the feeling of fear…Well I saw a character and I thought I saw him in a dream."
Closing quote

Oh, good, another use of electric shocks to bring back a sense of subconscious fear to a person's recollection.

To a certain extent, this makes sense—while the specifics of why we dream has never been definitively proven, many experts believe that dreams are a way for us to process the events of the day, as we work through what we've seen and experienced. This can often mean replaying tense or difficult scenarios and getting caught up in scary fictional moments, and naturally, these dreams are going to be the ones that we remember the clearest when we wake up—even if they remain buried until a nice doctor starts electrocuting us.

The third type of dream essentially places a person in an ethereal, half-awake mental state. These "dreamy state" experiences certainly sound like a little more fun than the first two types of déjà-rêvé:

Opening quote
"A funny feeling like passing out…I feel like I dreamed it. Like something I had seen…Like I am floating."
Closing quote

This is less about recalling memories, and more about changing the way a person experiences the world based on electrical impulses in their brain.

In truth, all of these accounts are valuable, despite the levels of horror found within. If scientists can learn how to trigger different reactions within the brain, particularly when it relates to traumatic experiences, it may be possible to help patients of various mental illnesses or trauma to work through their issues, or to simply correct imbalances with electricity rather than drugs that come with intense negative side effects.

So while the idea of getting zapped in the brain so hard that you start remembering your worst nightmares from childhood might sound like a bad idea, this research could well lead to big breakthroughs that will help scientists to treat the problems that many people face in their current lives.

Forcing someone to remember a scary beetle dream from their preschool days might ultimately be the key to helping people attain a healthier mental state, and that sounds like a good idea, mad science prospects notwithstanding.