Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Michio Kaku: This is Your Brain on Dreams

Theoretical Physicist Dr Michio Kaku has recently applied his brilliant mind to the science of dreaming, and interestingly, affirmed the validity of Freudian theories, with evidence from neuroscience. What could be better than a contemporary luminary - in the theoretical fields of quantum mechanics and String Theory - explaining the science of dreaming (using evidence from empirical research at the cutting-edge of experimental neuroscience) and validating the world's most notoriously genius psychiatrist and dream theorist at the same time?

In his latest bestseller, The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance and Empower the Mind (2014), Michio explores the mysteries of the human consciousness in the hope of using credible scientific methodology to explain the wonders of the brain. This is particularly interesting for me as I am bemused  by amateur attempts made to align quantum physics with spiritualism in ways which undermine - and often dismiss without due consideration - theoretical perspectives which focus on topics such as consciousness and dreaming while maintaining the rigorous standards of modern academic discourse. The internet - and other forums of debate - are awash with apparently irrational beliefs justified by an 'obfuscatory reference' to quantum physics, using ill-defined and poorly-understood definitions out of context. This phenomena is known popularly as Quantum Woo or Quantum Mysticism.

I've had to leave many pleasant internet forums dedicated to lucid dreaming due to the sheer amount of space which is taken up with frustrating arguments which involve the mismatch of spiritualism or mysticism and theoretical science. Often those most deeply and passionately involved in the debate have little time for what they disparagingly refer to as 'traditional science' and scoff at notions such as 'high impact journals', 'peer-review', 'empirical data from double-blind tests', 'replicability', 'methodology', 'confirmation bias' etc etc, while maintaining that all they need do in order to win a petty disagreement over source material and credibility is cite someone else who shares the same world view as them and a cool, anti-establishment reputation. In seeking what is lumped together as 'truth', many choose to blind themselves to simple issues such as who is presenting the idea and what purpose have they got in communicating it. I'm someone who shies away from religion, belief or faith-based perspectives of human consciousness - i.e. all the main organised religions and spirituality/mysticism. Outside of dream research, I'm a doctoral researcher, schooled in the methodology of proving a theory with observable evidence which has been collected and analysed to the standards of my educational institution (which is ranked in the top 1% worldwide for research). I like to combine my academic experience with my love of popular, accessible articles for publication, hence the reason I decided to research dreams and write about them. I love Freudian Theory and the idea of psychoanalysis, but equally I spend a lot of my spare time watching documentaries on theoretical physics and getting both impressed and highly confused at the same time. I sometimes feel a little bit guilty being so neo-Freudian (my forthcoming theory of dreaming is a postmodernist theory), given my preference for empirical science. I worried whether some of the dream theory which has so influenced my own understanding of dreaming and psychology could ever be aligned with my more rational framework for critical thought.

This is why it is so exciting that someone like Michio Kaku has contributed to the discourse of consciousness and dreaming, perhaps successfully bridging a gap which others have attempted, but failed to do persuasively and coherently.

Michio explains that not all of Freud's wild claims were wrong. His multitudinous detractors' claims that his theories could not be scientifically proven with empirical data may in fact have been shortsighted. Michio states that neuroscience has indicated that much of the brain's activity is unconscious, just as Freud had predicted. Further, neuroscientists have been able to utilise brain scan technology to identify parts of the brain which correspond with Freud's ego, superego and id. Michio states that the ego is basically the prefrontal cortex - this is the seat of the consciousness - or who you are, the 'self'. The pleasure centre (the id) is right in the middle of the brain, while the conscience (the superego) is behind the eyes, in the orbital frontal cortex.

Michio then claims that Freud's unique vision of dreaming may be capable of scientific verification after all. Brain scans make it possible for neuroscientists to track the activity of the 'control centre' during sleep. Activity can be detected in the back of the brain, which is a very 'primitive' part of the brain, while the prefrontal cortex is shut off - deactivated. The same happens in the orbital frontal cortex. So basically, rational thought and conscience are silenced during the dream state. The orbital frontal cortex also acts as a 'fact checker' - so this explains why we seem to accept bizarre and odd dream narratives without questioning (unless of course, you are learned in the art of 'reality checks'!) Michio explains that the main brain activity occurs in the part of the brain known as the amygdala - which governs fear and emotions. So the rational part of your brain is dormant during the dream state, but this does not mean that there are no methods of breaking through the 'analytical paralysis'. This is something that all lucid dream enthusiasts know. Michio cites the groundbreaking research carried out at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, which has revealed that lucid dreaming is testable, reproducable and scientifically legitimate. This sort of credible scientific discourse is likely to influence the direction of research and experimental science and Michio predicts that lucid dreaming may become a major focus of neuroscience in the near future, He suggests that one day it will be possible to scan the brain during the dream state and play the dream on a screen for others to watch. Scientists in Japan are already finding innovative new ways to 'photograph dreams'. In his book, Michio outlines exciting futurist technologies which when developed and refined could completely change our lives and the way we use our brains.

Here is the video of Michio Kaku discussing neuroscience, dreams and Sigmund Freud:

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