Dr. Moran Cerf (link) is a professor of neuroscience and business at the Kellogg School of Management and the neuroscience program at Northwestern university. He studies patients undergoing brain-surgery to examine behavior, emotion, decision making and dreams. This is done by directly recording the activity of individual nerve cells using electrodes implanted in the patient’s brain for clinical purposes. Dr. Cerf is a also a member of the Institute on Complex Systems. Recently, he became a consultant for USA’s Falling Water, a show about the intersection between reality and the unconscious. Contributing writer Celeste Thorson had the opportunity to spend some time with Dr. Cerf, and talk about what he dubs ‘the most remarkable black box’ – the human brain.
Destination Luxury: How did you begin your career? I understand you were a hacker and transitioned into becoming a neuroscientist.
Dr. Moran Cerf: I started my ‘career’ as a computer hacker. My job was to break into banks and government institutes to test their security. Once my team and I found flaws in their security and were able to break into their systems we would help them secure themselves better so that the real villains would not be able to break in. This was my career for nearly a decade. When the company was doing pretty well, I started wondering what [would be] next.
An unexpected meeting with a famous neuroscientist was my inspirational moment. He told me about the transition he had made from being a code-breaker during World War II to being a neuroscientist. With his encouragement, I started my own transition, using the same knowledge and skills I possessed as a hacker to tinker with the most remarkable “black box” we can try to hack into – our brain.
My work involves looking at the brains of people in a very unique way: by eavesdropping on the activity of individual nerve cells inside their head. Those aren’t regular people who let us poke inside their skull, but rather patients who undergo brain surgery for clinical purposes. During the clinical procedure electrodes are implanted inside their head to allow for the detection of the source of their problem. While we try to identify the cause of their disorder using those electrodes we are also able to use the fact that we have probes inside an awake-person’s-brain to study ‘thinking’ in the most direct way: by listening to brain cells speak to each other in their language. This allows us to learn how thinking, feeling, deciding, and dreaming works inside the brain.
Destination Luxury: What inspired you to delve specifically into the field of dreams?
Dr. Moran Cerf: When I started graduate school I was given advice: stay away from ‘risky’ research that has not produced notable results in a while. Instead focus on safer and more tangible things. These ‘risky’ topics include “consciousness”, “free will”, “the origin of life”, and many others. It also included “dreams”.
I followed this advice for much of my early career. I still think it was a wise advice for a junior researcher. At the same time, I never lost track of the questions that I felt were at the heart of what I found interesting. The things we all care about when we think of mysteries of the world that we want to uncover in our lifetime. Dreams was always high on the list.
Dreams are one of the most interesting phenomenon that our brain creates for us: a movie that is played inside our head. With no director. Where we get to play the lead role. The ultimate Virtual Reality. One that is so real that it fools our senses into thinking it is reality. A repeated loss of consciousness that occurs every night in our life, and yet – something we have no explanation for.
How could I resist delving into this….?
Destination Luxury: What is the most exciting part of the dream research discoveries for you?
Dr. Moran Cerf: I feel that, currently, the two most interesting aspects of dream research are:
(1) the understanding of “what dreams are for”, and (2) the “possibility of crafting dreams for us”.
Two domains that baffled scientists for nearly a century, and puzzled the entire world for millennia, but now – for the first time – are beginning to unfold in front of our eyes.
With the incredible strides neuroscientists are making rapidly towards decoding more and more brain functions we are beginning to uncover the underlying mechanisms that code our thinking. And with the unfolding of those we begin to improve our ability to decode not-only the realities of our awake-self, but also those of our dreaming brain. Accordingly, as we get closer and closer to understanding the essence of what dreams look like in our head, it is more likely that we will be able to understand the patterns and stories that craft them and govern them.
This, in turn, will allow us to potentially finally answer the key questions that I laid out. We will be able to isolate the purpose and function of dreams.
And with that, the next milestone is to control them and manipulate them. Giving us control over the images our brain generates for nearly one tenth of our life. Images which, up to now, we were just experiencing passively.
Imagine how cool it could be to ‘order’ your dreams. Go to a dream ‘BlockBuster’ and ask for “the recent dream by Steven Spielberg”, or order a dream that will take you to a luxury destination that otherwise you are unable to get to. It is in our brain’s capacity to imagine those, to dream about them. Now we just want to harness this skill and get control over the narrative.
Destination Luxury: How did you get involved with the new USA Network Television show “Falling Water?”
Dr. Moran Cerf: I was connected to the USA Network team prior to “Falling Water”, when I was involved in another show: “Mr. Robot”.
When “Mr. Robot” aired and we were chatting about my research at some point, I mentioned my recent work on dreams… This immediately triggered a longer conversation and quickly arrived at: “you’ve got to be involved with our new show – ‘Falling Water’”. You can imagine my excitement. From there the path to where we are now was easily carved.
Destination Luxury: What parts of the show incorporate facts versus science fiction?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Altogether, “Falling Water” is a science fiction show. It doesn’t aim to be a ‘documentary about my lab’ or in any way to depict dream research the way it is done in the lab. So even if nothing was reflective of the way it is done in a lab, this would have been ok. But, it happens to be the case that there are multiple aspects of dream research that the show was remarkably accurate about.
First, there’s the tools and the setup used for dream research. The EEG, electrodes placement on the forehead, and even the language used by the dream researchers resemble the ones used in our lab.
Second, there’s the visuals of dreams. They are stunning in their beauty while keeping the realism of the dream world. When a director and cinematographer are asked to create a depiction of dreams on TV they can go as wild as it gets and generate surreal images. However, we know that the reality of our dreams is that they borrow a lot from our ‘awake-world’. We rarely see images or situations in dreams that are totally different than those we experience when awake. I was impressed with the fact that the dreams scenes in the series maintain the feeling of imaginative reality, while still being grounded in what are likely to be the visuals of one’s dreams.
So these are two very interesting things that the show presents that are highly accurate. There are many more. But I wouldn’t want to spoil the joy for anyone by revealing those… Ask me again at the end of the season.
Destination Luxury: What technologies do you use to read and interpret the network of cells in the brain and decode their associated thoughts in the “Dream Machine”?
Dr. Moran Cerf: My team and I use electrodes implanted in patients’ brains to listen and decode the activity of small clusters of cells that manifest a ‘thought’ in a person’s head. Every time you think about a concept (‘mom’, ‘love’, ‘Apple computer’, ‘the Big Ben in London’, ‘infinity’) there are sets of cells in your brain that are active. Their activity is the neural representation of the concept you think of. If we can read the activity of those cells we can know exactly what you’re thinking. That is the highest resolution we can get in parsing your thoughts.
Alternatively, we can use imaging techniques, like brain scanners, or MRI machines, to learn about more ‘crude’ concepts (instead of knowing whether you’re thinking of your ‘mother’ or your ‘father’ we would know that you, maybe, think of a ‘person you know’). Either way, once we use those tools to learn (when you are awake) how your brain looks when you think/imagine those concepts we can have you go to sleep. Then, when you reach the dream state in your brain, we see which cells ‘light-up’ in what order and use that to guess the concepts you are seeing.
Destination Luxury: What technologies and techniques do you use to change or influence the behaviors in a dream?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Turns out that when we are asleep our brain is very active. It does not rest for a second and, in fact, it is busy doing a lot of things. In some parts of the night, our brain essentially ‘works through things’ and is strengthening connections within, or erasing other connections. Recent neuroscience studies have found that during certain moments in the night, if we use specific external stimuli we can nudge the brain to focus its work on topics that we ‘select’ for it.
One famous study showed that if I spray the smell of roses into your nose when you are dreaming and then wake you up, you will report having a positive dream. Spraying the smell of ‘rotten eggs’ will make you think it was a negative dream. Now we are trying to be even more specific in figuring out which smells drive what experience. Altogether, over the last 4 decades we learned that there are a variety of things that one can do to a sleeping person, in the right timing, the right concentration, the right pressure or the right volume – to make their dream shift to a specific domain.
So beyond the usage of smells to change your dream, we know that there are other stimuli that can maneuver your dream content. For example, touching your leg in a specific location would make you think you are falling. The use of some sounds in specific volumes would actually penetrate your dream and be incorporated in it. If I drizzle water on your when you are dreaming you are likely to incorporate water into your dream (“I was by a waterfall”, or “I was swimming in the pool”), and so on.
So, essentially, now we are in the process of mapping the ‘menu’ of stimuli that we can use to navigate your dream and shift the content. The trick is to learn the specifics of each individual – to identify the right levels of each stimulus so that we won’t wake you up but rather access your dreams, keeping the experience predictable. It is a slow process, but we are getting better.
Finally, in the last couple of years we learned that our ability to change behaviors is not limited to making you dream of a specific thing, but actually go beyond the nightly experience. Some studies from the last couple of years show that I can actually do things to your sleeping brain that will trigger a change in your behavior when you wake up. One study shows the ability to minimize the desire to smoke, and another one showed a change in racial biases. All done to a person while they were asleep and unaware of any of the things done.
Destination Luxury: Do you believe classical conditioning is an effective technique for modifying behaviors while dreaming?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Absolutely. Conditioning is a label we gave to a process that the brain goes through all the time. Neuroscientists call it ‘Hebbian learning’. The idea behind it is that events that happen together frequently (where one precedes the other) trigger the creation of connections in our brains that essentially map the increase in likelihood of the two events happening in sequence. Simply put, our brain optimizes the learning so that when the first event happens it is already ‘ready’ for the next one. Given that, it is not surprising that we can actually train the brain to expect an outcome after a cause even when we sleep. After all, it is the same brain – awake or asleep. And it is governed by the same rules. Even though your ‘conscious self’ is not there to experience the learning. That is why we can train your brain, overnight, to change or ‘be conditioned’ for specific patterns.
Destination Luxury: What do you hope to achieve by interpreting and influencing dreams?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Here, the sky is truly the limit.
First, we expect to understand how our experiences and concepts are mapped in the brain.
Then we also believe that we will actually finally understand the function of dreams (which is something that is being debated by scholars for decades).
Then we will also begin to access a part of us that was ‘dormant’ (literally) for years and potentially holds secrets to our identity that are essential to understanding who we are. Our brain created this unique phenomenon: every 24 hours it paralyzes our bodies – putting us at an ecological disadvantage if dangerous things occur. It then excites our brain with an increased activity, plays movies to us, sexually arouses us, and then wipes the memory of all of it before we wake up….
There must be a good reason for this. And we want to know it.
Second, after we learned about the neural mechanisms that govern this magical experience, one might want to learn the possibilities of controlling it and using it to help people change behaviors. After all, despite spending a third of our life sleeping, it feels like we are essentially ‘not there’ when we are asleep. While we do know that during the night our brain is going through processes of calibration and homeostasis we are passive about all of those, at best. What if we could be involved with the process. Optimize it. Influence it. Control it. Who wouldn’t want that?
Understanding ourselves, changing our behaviors and accessing the mysteries that our brain unfolds are just the tip of the iceberg. Our dreams burry keys to our psyche – and we want to unlock it.
Destination Luxury: What real world applications do you believe could become available for individuals interested in impacting their dreams?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Beyond being able to change behavior (i.e. make people improve some traits they want to fix) we can imagine additional things that could potentially be derived from the ability to impact one’s dreams. We can imagine maybe strengthening memories, or erasing bad ones during the night. Maybe learning new information, or at least rehearsing things we already learned while sleeping.
Then there is also the pure entertainment aspect of it: your brain plays movies to you overnight — maybe you would like to be able to choose the scenery of those? the characters? the experiences? maybe even the ‘cinematographer’ and ‘director’ of tomorrow night’s dreams…
Finally, the ultimate real-world application is one where we would have a reliable, consistent, access to the stories that we tend to forget when we wake up. Just having all of our dreams sorted and exposed to us would allow us to look into patterns in them, to identify repeated themes, or even suppressed ideas.
This could give rise to a potentially new type of therapy for individuals. If we believe that dreams are enabling us to access our unconscious, then we would want to be able to run some analytics on them and identify things that we might otherwise miss.
I have many other reasons… but I think those should definitely convince anyone that looking into dreams has real-world applications and you do not want to miss those.
Destination Luxury: What implications might this dream technology have when applied to health, education, and/or business?
Dr. Moran Cerf: I’ll give you a few examples, but here the sky is really the limit.
This is like a new tool, a new canvas that unfolds before our eyes. Trying to map the possibilities is impossible because there are so many options here. It would be like asking ‘what can a computer do?’ It can do so many things that there is an infinite set of ideas we can come up with and still not cover all of the options.
Dreams are the ultimate Virtual Reality. So all the companies that are now in this arms race to build the best VR are competing with a mechanism that already has the ability to create the ultimate one: our brain. Therefore, I think we are entering a remarkable world of possibilities with this research. Here are a few ideas for the implications:
Health: Eliminating nightmares, fixing traumas, decreasing phobias, and many other behavioral changes that we desire.
Education: At least, the ability to have our brain ‘rehearse’ things we learned during the day so we will have stronger memory of them when we wake up. At best, the ability to actually learn new content while we sleep… So you would go to sleep and wake up knowing Kung Fu.
Business: You would be able to have your brain simulate specific scenarios that you want to tackle in the future and see how they play out in your imagination – so you can have a better ability to decide later how to approach them. Here I imagine that there would be an entirely new industry that will offer ‘entertainment in your sleep’.
Similar to the way in which Hollywood absorbed the gaming industry in the last decade and now we have games that are essentially movies, and vice versa. Dreams could be the new medium that we will unveil. This will be a huge industry and also a huge room for innovation.
And, really, this is just scratching the surface. I feel that speculating here might be limiting the imagination of a person whose brain is not constrained yet. So, if you are enthusiastic and full of ideas – do not let me constrain you. The sky is really the limit here!
Destination Luxury: What are you working on next with your Neuroscience research?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Right now our focus is on studies that try to use this research to eliminate traumatic experiences. Essentially we work with people who experienced trauma in various aspects of their life (for example, soldiers who came back from war and saw horrifying things that haunt them). We try to use their sleep to have their brain learn to remember the experience without reliving it. If this works as we seem to see already, it would have the potential of really offering a new way for therapy that is not limited to your awake self, but also works with your dreaming one.
Destination Luxury: What developments do you predict in dream research over the next 5-10 years?
Dr. Moran Cerf: mmm…. if there’s one thing I learned from my life as a scientist is that “predictions are very hard; especially about the future”. If anything, to stand on the shoulder of giants, I would say that “we indeed tend to over-estimate the amount of change and advances we should expect 50 years ahead, and under-estimate the ones 5 years down the line”. We probably will learn a lot more about the mechanisms that we can utilize to manipulate and decode your dreams in the next 5 years, but will still be baffled by what dreams are for when I am 80 years old…
Destination Luxury: Are there any other upcoming events or projects you’d like to share?
Dr. Moran Cerf: Well… there are so many that I feel I won’t do any of them justice if I tried to list them in a few lines here.
But, we live in an era where everyone has access to everything… So I say – this is an opportunity to plug the fact that scientists now are doing a great job making their work public and accessible to everyone. So instead of me writing the projects in one magazine my colleagues and I are each putting websites with all the research in very tangible form. Want to know what I am doing at any given moment? Look up my lab’s website, or the labs of other cool scientists who you think do things you care about. You won’t be disappointed. The days of the boring white-haired guy in a lab coat who speak Gibberish and doesn’t make any sense when he tries to explain his work are over. Scientists now are very good in communicating their projects to everyone. So just ‘follow’ us (metaphorically. I actually don’t think most scientists use Twitter account; so the following will have to be done differently…). I promise you won’t be disappointed.
I’ll, personally, make an effort to make sure that by the time this article comes out my website will have a list of all the cool projects we work on, and all the events my team and I participate in (and there are many of those in the coming weeks). So here’s one place you use to start learning about events and journeying into upcoming projects!
Destination Luxury: Are there any dreams you’ve had that you wish would come true?
Dr. Moran Cerf: So many… My dreams mostly involve getting to see some events that I can only imagine, getting answers to questions I am excited about, or meeting people that shaped my life but were unfortunately not alive when I was born.
So, to unpack this statement, I dream I could meet some of my science idols for a week of one-on-one time (Einstein, Newton, Feynmann, Marie-Currie, etc. The list is really long here), or authors that shaped my life (Asimov, Jules Verne, Kant, …), or historic figures I learned about but would love to understand and learn from (here the list is very very long). Seeing historical events or just being a fly on the wall in some moments that shaped history would be a dream.
Maybe if our studies come to fruition we would be able to generate the experience to some extent. After all, one place where we CAN meet Einstein, or Kant or King David is… in their dreams.
Destination Luxury: What has been your most luxurious dream ever?
Dr. Moran Cerf: If you mean luxury in the mundane aspect of ‘being in an exotic place’, or ‘traveling to a destination that is fancy’ I must say I have the opposite dream. My ‘dream vacation’ is an adventure or a very non luxurious vacation. Staying in hostels in unknown remote location, sleeping in a sleeping-bag or on a hammock beat the fanciest 5-star hotel for me. So my most ‘luxurious’ dream would be a vacation with no access to information, on a remote location that is almost unknown and uncharted, where I to go through experiences that stimulate all the senses and generate lifelong memories and stories.
Read more about Moran Cerf here.
Article courtesy of DLX contributor, Celeste Thorson.