Writing in the journal Nature, researchers said they have developed a system capable of recording higher-level brain activity.
“We would like to read people’s dreams,” says the lead scientist Dr Moran Cerf.
The aim is not to interlope, but to extend our understanding of how and why people dream.
For centuries, people have been fascinated by dreams and what they might mean; in ancient Egypt for example, they were thought to be messages from the gods.
More recently, dream analysis has been used by psychologists as a tool to understand the unconscious mind. But the only way to interpret dreams was to ask people about the subject of their dreams after they had woken up.
The eventual aim of Dr Cerf’s project is to develop a system that would enable psychologists to corroborate people’s recollections of their dream with an electronic visualisation of their brain activity.
“There’s no clear answer as to why humans dream,” according to Dr Cerf. “And one of the questions we would like to answer is when do we actually create this dream?”
Dr Cerf makes his bold claim based on an initial study that he says suggests that the activity of individual brain cells, or neurons, are associated with specific objects or concepts.
He found, for example, that when a volunteer was thinking of Marilyn Monroe, a particular neuron lit up.
By showing volunteers a series of images, Dr Cerf and his colleagues were able to identify neurons for a wide range of objects and concepts – which they used to build up a database for each patient. These included Bill and Hilary Clinton, the Eiffel Tower and celebrities.
So by observing which brain cell lit up and when, Dr Cerf says he was effectively able to “read the subjects’ minds”.