Neuroscientists Martin Dresler and Michael Czisch of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich, Germany, recently published findings online in Current Biology that shows our brains can’t tell the difference between moving in a dream and moving in real life.
In order to gather their results, the scientists recruited six people trained in lucid dreaming — the art of being aware of dreaming and having control over dream actions — then asked them to fall asleep in a brain scanner. Once they had fallen asleep, the subjects were supposed to let the scientists know by moving their eyes from left to right, and then dream that they were clenching either their left or right hand. The researchers first checked each volunteer’s brain activity patterns to ensure they were asleep, then recorded activity throughout their brain using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), and on the surface of the brain, with Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS).
Although only two of the individuals were able to fall asleep in the scanner, the researchers saw that the area of the motor cortex lit up in the same way as someone who clenches their left hand when they are awake.
The findings indicate that dreams are not just watched like a movie, but actually involve the body. Dresler and Czisch plan to recruit more lucid dreamers and repeat the test with other complex movements like walking, speaking, or flying, in the hopes that their findings will lead to a better understanding of how and why we dream.