Saturday, July 28, 2012

Lucid dreams aid attempts to find the conscious brain

Lucid dreams are arguably the most interesting when it comes to dreaming. People capable of lucid dreams are aware that they are dreaming and can act on it. This can be rather amusing, but it can also help us to discover where consciousness is located in the brain. Because a lucid dream is quite similar to being conscious, comparing brain activity between ordinary periods of sleep and a conscious dream  is of interest to scientists. At the Max Planck Institute in Germany, such experiments were set up, which helped to discern brain patterns involved with consciousness.

Brain scans
Experiments were performed with participants that are capable of lucid dreaming, which were attached to brain scanners while they were sleeping. The scanner measured activity in all brain areas, and compared the patterns during periods of lucid dreams to periods of sleep without any dreams. This should help us to discover how the brain approximately governs consciousness, because such dreams require one to at least be partly conscious.

By comparing the brain scans, the scientists found that during periods of conscious dreams, the participants showed increased activity in an area of the prefrontal cortex, that had already been associated with thoughts for 'self-assessment', which obviously requires a form of consciousness. Additionally, activity in areas already associated with evaluating your thoughts and feelings, as well as self-perception was found to be increased.

Combined activity of the aforementioned brain areas is likely a causative factor for generating consciousness. Because dreaming, albeit lucid, is not the same as being awake, it remains to be seen which other brain areas are involved. It is likely that actually being awake and being conscious is a tad bit more complex, but the study does give a realistic insight in what a brain pattern for consciousness would look like. The fact that the scientists found activity in brain areas already associated with behaviour necessary for consciousness adds to the evidence.

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