Field of Science


Mind Games

Did you know you're a skilled mind reader? Scientists reported this week that people use a neat brain-sharing trick when they're talking to each other.

Specifically, when one person is listening to another person tell a story, the listener's brain lights up with activity in the same areas as the storyteller's brain (with a short delay). As you listen to someone talking, your brain mirrors what their brain is doing. Cool, right? And some parts of your brain actually light up just before theirs, as if anticipating what's coming. The more your brain activity matches the other person's, the better your understanding of their story will be.

This piece of news has been presented in several outlets as a "real-life Vulcan mind meld," but I'm going to pretend I don't know what that is.

So it might be easy for our brains to have a shared understanding. But no matter how fancy his equipment is, there is no way for Leo DiCaprio, or anyone else, to share your dreams. (No Inception spoilers ahead, I promise.) There are ways, though, to control your own dreams.

Researcher Barry Krakow works with nightmare sufferers. Only 4 to 8 percent of adults have chronic nightmares (a dream that's so scary it wakes you up, more than once a week), but the number is much higher among traumatized groups such as veterans and rape victims. Krakow teaches his patients a technique called image rehearsal therapy: while awake, they imagine their nightmares transformed into less terrifying scenes. Apparently, it can work to drive away the nightmares for good.

Deirdre Barrett, another dream researcher, recommends that people solve problems with a technique called dream incubation. This involves focusing on a problem right before sleep, then trying to remember your dreams when you wake up. Ideally, your dreaming mind will have worked out a solution for you (how considerate of it!).

Lucid dreaming, on the other hand, is being aware of a dream while it's happening. It's also used as a form of therapy, or just a neat trick. I became aware of lucid dreaming when I was young (OK, fine! It was in a Star Trek episode where Captain Picard was trapped in a dream, and he could only figure it out by seeing Earth's moon outside his ship). Nightmares are more common in kids, and I had plenty. In one recurring dream, I was lying in the back seat of car with no one driving, speeding down a city road at night.

With my newly acquired knowledge of lucid dreaming, I decided to outwit the nightmare: the next time it happened, I told myself, I'd remember that the dream couldn't hurt me. Soon enough, I was back in my nightmare car. But this time, I sat up in the backseat and remembered that I was dreaming. With my best sassy-little-kid attitude, I told my subconscious, "So what?" And I never had that dream again.

I also discovered that, even without looking out the front of the Enterprise and seeing the moon, I could become aware within a dream. And I learned how to defeat nightmares. Open your eyes, I'd tell myself as my feet churned in sand and the murderer gained on me. Reaching inward, I could find my physical self, locate my sleeping eyes and force them open. Just like that, I was awake in my bed. It was thrilling, like a superpower.

Sadly, I never figured out how to turn all my dreams into fun lucid romps full of flying and dinosaurs. And as a boring adult, I'm stuck with those tedious dreams where the plane is about to leave and for some reason I've forgotten to pack a suitcase or finish that one last exam from college. Maybe Leo can help me.

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