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Brainiac

Scientists can read your dreams

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Dreams are among our most personal experiences. They take place in such a deeply recessed part of our brains that we can barely remember them ourselves, let alone explain them to others.

But a new study out of Japan may portend a future in which dreaming is more transparent. The study, which was reported in Science Express on April 4, used fMRI technology to analyze brain activity and predict with surprising accuracy the types of visual images that three research subjects experienced during their dreams.

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To figure out what they were detecting, the researchers monitored activity in their subjects’ visual cortexes during the first stages of sleeping. Then, they roused their study subjects and asked them to retell their dreams. Later, they monitored their research subjects’ brain activity as they looked at a series of images. They found, consistent with previous fMRI research, that whether subjects were looking at a picture of a tree or dreaming about a tree, the same part of their brains tended to light up.

By constructing a kind of “image library” for their subjects, the researchers were able to guess the objects and settings that appeared in the dreams—things like “human,” “food,” “building”—with 60 percent accuracy.

It’s amazing, and a little disquieting, to imagine a future in which our dreams have become legible to the outside world. At the same time, the bluntness of the study throws into relief the true complexity of dreams, and suggests it will be a long time yet before our recorded dreams become just another variety of media. Maybe fMRI technology can tell that you dreamed about an old man, a dog, and a forest. But what did it feel like to be in that forest? Who was the dog, really? That knowledge is still yours alone, if it belongs to anyone at all.

How free is Massachusetts?

You’ve probably seen those shaded maps that evaluate all the countries in the world on measures like corruption or ease of doing business. William Ruger and Jason Sorens do something similar with the 50 American states—placing them on a spectrum from most to least free. The pair, who are political scientists with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, released the third edition of “Freedom in the 50 States” at the end of March, and a new state took over the top ranking (hint: It’s not Massachusetts).

The rankings are calculated based on three broad categories: fiscal policy, regulatory policy, and personal freedom. Ruger and Sorens take a libertarian perspective in which any law or regulation is seen as an affront to freedom. North and South Dakota take the number one and number two spots respectively, owing to relaxed liability laws, low taxes, and laws limiting the scope of labor unions. New York is tagged as “by far the least free state in the Union” thanks, among other factors, to its top-in-the-nation tax rates. Massachusetts comes in at number 30, which the authors note may be surprising given our reputation as a “liberal state par excellence.” The Bay State receives high marks for the relatively small number of people on the public payroll, while it gets dinged for the health insurance mandate, fireworks ban, and “extremely strict home school requirements.”

These types of rankings are innately controversial, of course. Laws may restrict what we’re able to do, but they also promote freedom in a positive sense: We’re all more free, you could argue, because we don’t have to worry about uninspected meat or unregulated prescription drugs.

The bubble-wrap painter

Canadian artist Bradley Hart has made two complementary series of paintings using bubble wrap called "Injections." s.

Bradley Hart

Canadian artist Bradley Hart has made two complementary series of paintings using bubble wrap called "Injections."

You can pack with it and pop it. Turns out you can paint with it, too. Canadian artist Bradley Hart maps out an image on a giant sheet of bubble wrap, injects each bubble with paint, and produces grainy images, which he describes as a play on the ubiquity of digital pixels in our lives. Hart, whose work recently ended a monthlong run at gallery nine5 in New York, calls this series “Injections.” He also produces a parallel series called “Impressions,” made by allowing a precisely measured amount of paint to overflow out of each bubble onto a sheet, which Hart peels away to produce a negative image of the injected artwork.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.
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