Israeli neuroscientist Moran Cerf’s astounding dream insights can help us change thinking, improve performance and be entertained during sleep.
By Abigail Klein Leichman, ISRAEL21c
Back in 2010, a chef in New York had a recurring dream about a fantastic new recipe. But he never remembered all the details when he woke up. He contacted Israeli neuroscientist Moran Cerf and asked if it was possible to record his food dream.
At the time, Cerf wasn’t able to help. Today he probably could retrieve that dreamy recipe.
“For the first time, we can actually look inside your dreams and decode the content,” says the associate professor of business and neuroscience at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management in Chicago.
Cerf studies how thoughts get into the brain, how the brain encodes the incoming information, and how dreams and memories can be altered by “speaking to your brain behind your back.”
This is not science fiction.
The commercial applications of Cerf’s dream insights are already in development for anything from changing negative behaviors to enabling ultimate VR experiences.
“The coolest thing we can do is inject ideas into your dreams, using sleep as a commodity. We can look at what’s going on in your brain, interact with your mind at certain stages of sleep, and change things in your brain that will make this one-third of your life something we can use,” says Cerf.
“Of course, it can be used for good or bad. For good, [this capability] can change behaviors, make you consider different thoughts, be more creative. The bad is you can wake up wanting a Pepsi.”
Hollywood movies in your dreams
Most of the companies working with Cerf aim to create useful consumer goods that would, for example, improve your sleep quality or your test scores. The first such products may be on the market in the next two years, he estimates.
Thinking more futuristically, Cerf’s research has Hollywood dreaming up new kinds of entertainment.
“When you watch a VR movie wearing goggles, in the back of your mind you know it is not true. If you see a dinosaur you can do something about it. In dreams, dinosaurs feel as real as they get,” says Cerf. “Hollywood thinks about creating movies for you in your dreams so you can go to sleep and have an ultimate VR dream by Spielberg.”
Dating websites are intrigued by the possibility of offering couples a way to keep dreaming about a good date after they have both gone home and fallen asleep.
“There is a lot of business interest,” says Cerf. “Everyone wants to be the first to own the world of dreams.”
How Cerf knows what you’re dreaming
Cerf, 41, is one of a handful of scientists who have picked up the ball on dream research where Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung left it in the early 1900s.
He’s carrying that ball far beyond any boundaries those psychologists could have imagined.
“Everyone is fascinated with dreams. We think that they mean a lot. The Bible is full of dreams; cavemen did drawings of dreams. But we have had very few advances over the dream studies done by Freud and Jung,” Cerf tells ISRAEL21c.
“They did a good job mapping dreams and asking questions about dreams and trying to tie dreams to behaviors. But Freud didn’t know that the dream narrative you give when you wake up is colored by the language of being awake, and you might be totally wrong about what your dream was. You put interpretations on it.”
Over the past decade, neuroscientists gained the ability to look at your brain while you’re dreaming, extract content and see how the dream differs from the story you tell about it.
Cerf’s lab is one of only a handful in the world that study human brains from the inside. His subjects are patients undergoing brain surgery for medical reasons who agree to have electrodes implanted during the surgery.
Via these electrodes, scientists like Cerf can eavesdrop on individual cells during any passive or active activity including thinking, talking and sleeping.
“If you wake up and forget your dream, we can say, ‘This is what you dreamed last night; what does it mean to you?’ We can actually access this thing. We’re not stuck anymore,” says Cerf, who was on the 2016 Poets&Quants list of America’s best 40 business professors under 40.
Storyteller, serial inventor
Dreams are only one of the many neuroscience areas Cerf is illuminating.
Cerf studies the brain science of free will, decision-making, memory storage, and attention engagement.
Raised in Tel Aviv, he has a bachelor’s degree in physics and a master’s in philosophy from Tel Aviv University, and a doctorate in neuroscience from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
A storytelling champion and a serial inventor, he has served as a consultant for TV shows including “Mr. Robot,” “Falling Water” and “Limitless.” He teaches an annual American Film Institute screenwriting class on science in films.
Cerf has advised companies including Red Bull, Hershey and Tinder. He travels the world as a visiting professor and lectures in front of TED, TEDx, PopTech, DLD and Talks at Google audiences. He’s written numerous articles and is a frequent radio and TV interviewee.
Moran Cerf’s 4 surprising facts about dreams
1. The story we tell about the dreams we remember may be totally made up by our brain when we wake up and not at all true.
2. People in the 1930s described their dreams in black and white. Only when movies started having colors did people start thinking that their dreams (which they thought of as “movies in their mind”) were in color.
3. We can now not only loosely parse the content of your dreams but also “shape” — to an extent — the content of your dreams.
4. We can change your behavior (make you like things, not like things, remove traumatic memories, etc.) while you sleep.
4 ways dream manipulation can change your mind
1. Erase trauma
2. Strengthen memories of things you learned during the day
3. Remove racial biases
4. Eliminate some cravings and desires (such as smoking)