June 4, 2021 — “I had the weirdest dream last night.”
It’s a common refrain from people whose dreams have taken them to places beyond their waking imagination. And for good reason, according to neuroscientist Erik Hoel, PhD, of Tufts University in Medford, MA.
Strange dreams, he claims, serve an important purpose in that they help our brains understand day-to-day experiences in a way that allows for deeper learning. Humans, he suggests in a recent study, actually expand their brain power in much the same way that artificial intelligence systems are trained to become smarter.
In fact, deep-learning neural networks are being used by scientists to train AI systems.
However, when an AI system becomes overly familiar with data, it may oversimplify its analysis, resulting in a “overfitted brain” that believes what it sees is a perfect representation of what it will encounter in the future.
To address this issue, scientists add a degree of chaos and randomness to their data in order to deepen machine learning and improve the accuracy of AI systems.
Similarly, Hoel warns that “our brains are so good at learning that we’re always in danger of being overfitted.” This can lead to overly simplistic and overly familiar perceptions of our surroundings. As a prompt, just like in AI training, our brains introduce chaos while we sleep, which frequently manifests as bizarre dreams.
“The strangeness of dreams and how they differ from waking experience gives us insight that there must be a biological function behind it,” Hoel says. “Our experience with deep neural networks, which were inspired by brain function, provides us with a possible explanation for why this occurs.”
According to Christopher Winter, MD, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine in Virginia, this theory is intriguing. He is unsure, however, how scientists will ever be able to prove it.
Neuroscientists routinely examine neural activity during sleep, but capturing dreams and evaluating them presents obvious challenges.
Hoel admits that recall is the primary method for assessing dreams. Most people remember only fragments of their dreams, and usually only the parts that occur immediately before they wake up.