By Benjamin Lindsay
"Do you ever get the feeling your dreams are trying to tell you something?” It is this central question that acts as the driving force behind USA’s latest psychological thriller Falling Water, which follows a group of three strangers who learn they can mysteriously enter one another’s dreams. From the director of 28 Weeks Later and producers of The Walking Dead and Homeland, the series is quick to prove in its pilot episode (now streaming online and officially premiering Oct. 13) that it’s a twisty and thrilling drama, guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat.
In celebration of the new series, USA hosted a special Falling Water event at Milk Studios on Oct. 5, featuring the series’ executive producers Gale Anne Hurd and Blake Masters, and a special presentation from TED Talk vet Moran Cerf, a neuroscientist specializing in -- you guessed it! -- dreams.
While the series’ premise may at first sound far-fetched, Cerf proved that Falling Water may well be based more in reality than expected. Here are four awesome takeaways from the celebrated neurologist’s presentation, highlighting that when it comes to the dreaming human mind, very little is known -- and almost anything is possible.
1. There’s a reason we can’t remember our dreams.
Sleeping is something that people spend approximately one-third of their lives doing, but we still have essentially no understanding of dreaming. Part of that is because the human brain often doesn’t allow itself to recall its dreams while in a waking state. This is “for reasons that are practical,” Cerf explained. “Our brain doesn’t want us to confuse dreams for memories, so we won’t wake up and think we just scored a touchdown and we remember it as if it happened to us.”
2. The brain speaks its own language — and we can decode it.
Cerf speaks your brain’s language. While most studies of the brain revert to exterior tests like EEGs or MRIs, Cerf -- thanks to consenting patients undergoing brain surgery -- has spent the last six years studying its interior, measuring electronic impulses from cell to cell directly from within the source. Many open cranial surgeries require patients to be awake for the surgery to properly monitor brain activity.
Cerf explained how he would insert electrodes into the brain during this time in order to chart which cells were electronically responding to certain visuals. Because each thought or activity is represented in the brain by its own microscopic neuron, Cerf can determine what a person is thinking by seeing which cells light up! The “Marilyn Monroe cell” of one woman’s brain, for instance, would light up at the sign of any brain activity relating to Marilyn Monroe. Such practice lays groundwork that could lead to reading another’s mind – and even hacking their dreams.
3. There is now technology that can digitally visualize what we’re dreaming.
Technology in the years since Cerf first began this neurological study has only gotten exponentially better. One device in particular, he explained, is able to attach to a waking person and read brain activity close enough to theorize and reproduce the shape and movement of what they’re seeing in real time.
The reproduced image based on that activity is hardly crystal clear, but viewers can see a solid outline and get the gist of what the patient is seeing. This technology is also usable while in a sleep state, but rather than what they see, the device would reproduce what the person dreams. “We had [patients] sleep there for awhile, and at the computer, we’d look at their brain and try… and interpret what we think of the visuals that they’re seeing.” These images would be very vague but often clear enough to divvy up dream subjects by people, places, and things.
4. Your dreams can be hacked to influence the real world.
“So this is step one: to look at those dreams and visualize it,” Cerf said. “But what I want to do really is to not just read but to also influence and actually use it to change people’s behaviors…. Over the night, our brain rethinks its values and things it cares about, and we can intervene and start changing behavior.”
This can be done by monitoring someone’s sleep until they think of a specific behavior. When the brain is shown to be thinking of that subject through neurons and electronic impulses, Cerf could add a foreign stimulus that would tie that thought to something bad or undesirable.
Cerf cited a woman who wanted to quit smoking. While asleep, whenever the woman’s brain activity was shown to be thinking about cigarettes, a harsh smell of rotten eggs was wafted into her nose. The idea is when she wakes eight hours later, her addiction is slightly less imposing than it was before. Eventually, such practices could theoretically lead to being able to learn different skills while you’re asleep. “So you can go asleep and wake up knowing Kung fu,” Cerf joked.
Do you want to blur the lines between dreaming and waking? Get lost in the world of Falling Water, airing on USA Thursdays at 10/9c.