By administering mild electric currents to the brain, neuroscientists from Frankfurt University have successfully induced self-awareness in sleeping volunteers. Amazingly, the technique could be used to help people take better control of their dreams. But it's also a discovery that's offering critical insights into the very nature of consciousness itself.
Gamma waves have been linked to consciousness before — a process called gamma coherence — but this is the first time scientists have used it to coax self-awareness during the dream cycle.
Gamma waves are a neural oscillation pattern with frequencies between 25 and 100 Hz, with 40 Hz being the sweet spot. Back in 1999, neuroscientist Andreas K. Engel theorized that synchronous 40 Hz oscillations could solve the so-called binding problem — the still unknown ability of the mind to seamlessly segregate elements and combine problems (e.g., our capacity to distinguish elements in complex patterns, allowing us to perceive them as discrete objects). Other work has correlated gamma waves with near-death experiences — experiences that are linked to intense electrical surges that cause "hyper real" thoughts in our brains.
And it now appears that gamma waves can be linked to self-awareness and dreaming.
When describing lucid dreaming, Aristotle put it well when he said that, "often, when one is asleep, there is something in consciousness which declares that what then presents itself is but a dream." He was definitely onto something by describing it as a form of self-consciousness during the dream cycle — an observation that was reaffirmed during a recent experiment conducted at the University of Frankfurt by Ursula Voss.
Her team recruited 27 volunteers who had never experienced lucid dreaming. Once they reached the REM stage of sleep, the subjects were zapped for 30 seconds in the frontal lobe with a weak electrical current ranging from 2 to 100 Hz. A control group was also set up in which participants received a nil current.
At the gamma wave band (40 Hz), the brains of the test subjects generated brain waves at the same frequency, which in turn induced self-awareness, or lucidity, 77% of the time. Stimulation at 25 Hz produced the effect 58% of the time. This was determined by follow-up reports from the dreamers after the experiment. For example:
I was dreaming about lemon cake. It looked translucent, but then again, it didn't. It was a bit like in an animated movie, like the Simpsons. And then I started falling and the scenery changed and I was talking to Matthias Schweighöfer [a German actor] and 2 foreign exchange students. And I was wondering about the actor and they told me "yes, you met him before," so then I realized "oops, you are dreaming." I mean, while I was dreaming! So strange!
These findings strengthen Voss's 2009 study which concluded that "lucid dreaming constitutes a hybrid state of consciousness with definable and measurable differences from waking and from REM sleep, particularly in frontal areas." The new study shows that gamma waves are a cause of the lucidity, and not just a consequence of it.
These findings also suggest that creating consciousness in a computer won't be as simple as stumbling upon the right stream of 1s and 0s. As Jordan Pearson recently noted in Motherboard:
Claiming that consciousness can be explained by mapping brain activity is a position that psychiatrist Sally Satel has called "neurocentrism." The idea doesn't hold water, some neuroscientists claim, because brain activity is often dispersed throughout the brain and in variable formations.
As José van Djick argued in her article "Memory Matters in the Digital Age," the brain is less like a computer and more like a symphony; it continually plays variations on a theme when it comes to activities like recalling memory. Even if we can track brain activity, we can't describe the processes that occur.
It's a problem that has major ramifications for artificial intelligence.
Heretofore, researchers and engineers have improved machine intelligence step-by-step, and the possibility that the human brain could somehow be reversed-engineered directly has remained elusive. While [Voss's] new study sheds new light on electrical processes in the brain, it's definitely not proof that we're closer to computers than we thought.
Indeed, it may suggest the opposite. It's becoming increasingly obvious, at least to me, that consciousness is the result of many analog processes that will be extremely difficult to emulate in the digital realm. That's not to suggest they're all intractable problems — though the controversial theories of panpsychism, quantum consciousness, and the suggestion that consciousness is a state of matter presents potential deal-breakers for the prospect of digital consciousness, unless a hybrid brain can be created that combines neurological elements which can be digitized with those that can't.
Voss's study also presents the possibility that gamma wave rigs could be used in a recreational sort of way, kind of like a DIY version of Inception.
Additionally, it could be used to help people who suffer from chronic nightmares or who suffer from anxiety disorders, like PTSD. The idea is that, when a dream starts, the gamma wave machine kicks in, allowing the dreamer to take control.
Read the entire study at Nature Neuroscience: "Induction of self awareness in dreams through frontal low current stimulation of gamma activity."