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The Telegraph
| Sunday, October 27, 2013 |
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Sweet dreams are made of this

A sadhu's dream about buried gold has prompted the Archaeological Survey of India to conduct a dig in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh. T.V. Jayan on the latest research on the relation between dreams and our waking life

If Richard Wiseman delivers on what he promises, we all will be able to wake up every morning with a smile, completely rejuvenated and fully charged up. No, this UK-based psychology professor, who incidentally was a magician in the early years of his life, doesn't wield a magic wand. But — with the help of a mobile app — he is trying to ensure that people have sweet dreams.

A sadhu called Shobhan Sarkar, of course, doesn't need this app — he has happily been dreaming of buried gold in Unnao's Daundia Kheda village and other places in Uttar Pradesh. But mere mortals could benefit from Wiseman's invention.

"Getting a good night's sleep and having pleasant dreams boost people's productivity, and are essential for their psychological and physical well-being," Wiseman says.

Dreams — analysed, revered or discarded — have always intrigued scientists. But Wiseman has even turned this scientific interest into a business interest. Nearly a year and a half ago, the professor at the University of Hertfordshire teamed up with a London-based mobile apps developing firm to create his app for smartphones. It is claimed that the app, capable of monitoring a person's sleep, delivers appropriate soundscapes when the person enters into a stage of sleep called the rapid eye movement (REM), when most dreams occur.

Each of the carefully chosen soundscapes is designed to evoke a pleasant scenario, such as a walk in the woods or lying on a beach. The sounds are expected to influence people's dreams. At the end of the dream, the app sounds a soft alarm that helps the individual wake up gently.

Elsewhere, scientists continue to analyse dreams. Images and emotions that a person experiences in a dream are still a big mystery to science. Advanced brain mapping techniques of late have been able to throw some light on this intriguing phenomenon.

As science understands it today, when a person first goes into sleep, the brain tumbles into a deep abyss of sleep called N3 that erases the conditions that a person requires to stay awake or conscious. But at the fag end of the sleep, the brain needs to "boot up" its consciousness. REM and dreaming, scientists believe, are part of this "booting up" — or getting ready to wake up again.

"Awakening from deep sleep requires the brain to become 'less sleepy'. REM, in which dreams mostly occur, may well be a mechanism for moving the brain in that direction," says William R. Klemm, a senior professor of neuroscience at the Texas A&M University, US, in a 2011 paper.

But do dreams play a role? Scientists — mostly in the West — have been trying to ascertain this for a long time. There seems to be a thematic link between waking and dreams, says Michael Schredl of the Central Institute of Mental Health, Germany. For instance, it is not unknown to dream about the tune of an elusive song that you have been trying your best to remember before going to bed.

Indeed, topics that are relevant to us in waking life have a high chance of popping up in dreams. On the other hand, dreams can also inspire waking life, creativity, emotional insights, problem solving and motivation to do something, Schredl told 7 Days. A study by Schredl and his colleagues conducted six years ago has shown how dreams have been an invaluable aid for those who are in creative jobs.

"Dreams reflect very clearly the weaknesses and strengths of the dreamer, and the major issues he or she is dealing with at that moment," Schredl says.

There have been some interesting experiments to measure dream content using advanced brain mapping techniques in the recent past. In one such study, reported in the journal Current Biology in 2011, researchers from Germany's Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry showed that when people dream that they are performing a particular action, a portion of the brain involved in the planning and execution of that particular movement in wakeful life lights up with activity.

To study this, the Max Planck researchers used those who could be trained to do lucid dreaming — a type of dreaming in which the participant is aware that he or she is dreaming and at the same time can control the actions in dreams.

To do this the scientists monitored the entry of volunteers into REM sleep measuring electric signals emanating from the brain. They found that a region in the brain called the sensorimotor cortex, which is responsible for the execution of movements, was actually activated during the dream. This is directly comparable with the brain activity that occurs when a person who is awake moves his or her hand.

"Our dreams are not a 'sleep cinema' in which we merely observe an event passively, but involve activity in the regions of the brain that are relevant to the dream content," says Michael Czisch, who led the study.

Meanwhile, while scientists continue to ponder over dreams, Wiseman's app is being fine-tuned. Since April last year, as many as 15 million dreams have been recorded.

"Perhaps you would like to dream about taking a relaxing stroll through the countryside, being able to fly, or lying on a sun drenched beach," the site for the app asks.

That would be one way of ensuring that a dream about buried gold doesn't turn into a nightmare.

You may say I'm a dreamer

Artist Salvador Dali said dreams stimulated his work

Filmmaker Ingmar Bergmann turned dream images into film sequences

Director Federico Fellini also turned dreams into film scenes

Author Robert Louis Stevenson said the idea of a character metamorphosing into another in The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde came to him in a dream

Singer Paul McCartney heard the melody of the song Yesterday in a dream

German chemist August von Kekulé discovered the ring structure of the benzene molecule by thinking about a dream in which a snake seized hold of its own tail

American inventor Elias Howe said his invention of a sewing machine was inspired by a dream