(UR) Vancouver, British Columbia — “So we spend a twelfth of our life dreaming. And most of it is forgotten. What if we could peek inside our brain and see our dreams? Maybe even … shape them.”
This is how a professor of neuroscience and business at Northwestern University opened his TED talk back in February. His presentation, posted by TED in March, is titled “Moran Cerf: This scientist can hack your dreams.”
“I am a neuroscientist,” Dr. Cerf continues, “and I study how thinking works inside the brain.”
By the time he was 24, Moran Cerf had received a B.S. in Physics and an M.A. in Philosophy from Tel Aviv University. He went on to earn a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Caltech by age 31, in 2009.
The following year, Cerf and a team of scientists published a landmark study demonstrating that it’s possible for human beings to control their own temporal lobe neuron activity.
But due to the nature of the research and some confusion over the study’s accompanying short film, many were immediately asking if Cerf and his team could record dreams.
“Just to be clear,” explains Cerf in his TED talk. “My work had nothing to do with recording people’s dreams.”
But when the BBC pressed the issue back in 2010, and asked if dream recording is possible, Cerf says he answered: “Well in theory it’s possible.”
The media ran with the story, and suddenly Cerf and his team were supposed to be able to record the dreams of human beings.
The barrage lasted a short while until, as Cerf puts it at TED, “Prince William proposed to his girlfriend, which was much more important. And I got to go back to my work.”
But the idea had taken root in the scientific community, and soon Cerf was being asked to comment on breakthroughs in the area of dream recording. This prompted the scientist to take a harder look at the field he’d — seemingly inadvertently — sparked to life.
“But I study the brain in a very non-traditional way,” Cerf says at the talk. “Partially inspired by my background. Before I became a neuroscientist, I was a computer hacker. I used to break into banks and government institutes, to test their security.”
For the remainder of the presentation, Cerf explains how he uses techniques he learned as a hacker to “eavesdrop on the brains of patients while they’re awake and behaving.”
To do this, Cerf partnered with neurosurgeons from around the globe, seeking out patients undergoing a specific type of brain surgery. He needed subjects whose craniums would be open, whose brains would be exposed and hooked up to electrodes, but who also would be conscious and communicative.
But somewhere along the way, as Cerf talks of his team’s accomplishments — some of which are quite astounding, such as getting someone to dream a sequence just as it had been shown to them in waking life — the work starts to sound less and less like research, and more and more like brain manipulation.
This assessment would seem to be backed up by Cerf, himself.
The last segment of his TED lecture ties directly back to his opening statement. After explaining how the team successfully taught a computer to reasonably translate someone’s dreams into a linear sequence, Cerf tells the audience: “So this gets us now thinking about the ability to maybe also … change things when you’re asleep.”
If something inside goes a little tight when you hear someone talk about tinkering with people’s dreams, you’re not alone. And if you instantly want to know a little more about what that someone is all about, you’re not alone on that, either.
And for Moran Cerf, at least part of what he’s all about is C-lab.
BEYOND THE CLASSROOM
“Curiosity. Creativity. Consulting detectives. Cognition. Complexity. Consciousness. Cyber-security. Cinema. Consumer behavior. Computation. Contact.”
That’s the slogan atop the homepage of Cerf’s private consulting and research firm, C-lab.
Some of the ongoing research projects at C-lab include “Affecting choices in dreams during sleep.” This one falls more in line with what Cerf presented at TED, as the study asks: “Mostly — can we affect people’s sleep — making them remember things better during sleep, or even injecting content into their dreams and memories.”
Another project, called “Emotion regulation in humans,” seeks to “test the ability of human subjects to control their emotions.” To do so, researchers “use electrodes embedded deep inside the emotions centers of humans undergoing neurosurgery and test their ability to control their emotions by looking deep inside their feeling brain.”
On the surface, it isn’t difficult to see how that type of data could prove beneficial. But given the greater context — and considering who’s running the show at C-lab — a pause may be in order.
In a gushing piece by Haaretz back in January of 2012, Cerf painted a pretty clear picture of where he’d like to see his research go. From the closing paragraph of that article:
“You asked what motivates me. If this research succeeds, and eventually, one day, we can develop a happiness pill, or at least explain it better, or we could tell someone: You’ll never be truly happy because it appears that you can only reach level 8 and not 9 on the happiness scale. If I had that, I’d feel like I could retire.”
Shades of classic dystopian fiction there.
But one project above all at C-lab — at least, of those made public — really seems to cut to the heart of all this type of research. Titled “Voluntary choices and free will,” the study uses “electrodes embedded in the brain of patients undergoing neurosurgery to test their choices and predict their decisions prior to their conscious experience of the decision.”
Which is a little frightening in its ambiguity. In any case, this is the type of research that led to Moran Cerf’s TED talk.
But as the neuroscientist puts it at TED, “We’re not there … yet.” And while he hasn’t yet brought his vision of a population sustained by happy pills into reality, it’s fairly clear what he wants to do with the science and technology at his disposal in the meantime.
Rent it out.
BRAIN DATA FOR SALE
In January, Fortune published a commentary piece by Cerf titled “Why You’ve Already Made Up Your Mind About Donald Trump.” In it, Cerf goes about explaining how neuroscience proves that people don’t really change their minds about political candidates once the decision’s been made.
But what’s hinted at earlier in the piece — marketing — is revealed by the final paragraphs to be the article’s real objective.
Remarking on using neuroscience as a method of marketing research, Cerf says that:
“Admittedly, gathering and analyzing brain activity, as we have in other research using movie trailers and commercials, is expensive and requires neuroscience expertise. However, it’s easy to see why brain data might be especially insightful, compared to polling people’s subjective opinions. Brain data could show those moments and messages when people are most engaged. That, in turn, could inform candidates, marketers, or others trying to influence voters or other consumers how to best present information and positions for the most impact and engagement.”
The final paragraph reads like a PR piece for neuromarketing, with Cerf asserting that:
“For any ‘campaign,’ political or commercial, in which the stakes are high and the investment is large (for example on an ad in the upcoming Super Bowl, where every extra second increases the price by millions of dollars), brain data could prove far more insightful than traditional polling.”
Fortunately for Cerf, an entire subdivision of C-lab stands ready to help guide interested parties through the efficiencies of the burgeoning field of neuromarketing.
And as Cerf readily admits in his Fortune article, “gathering and analyzing brain activity…is expensive.” Indeed. So one could be forgiven for being curious as to who funds Cerf’s operation.
As it happens, one of C-lab’s six sponsors is DARPA — the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — whose history of experimental research and assistance on top secret military projects has been well-documented.
This connection actually makes sense, considering the nebulous nature of C-lab’s recruitment page.
“Whether you are an experienced neuroscientist,” the text reads, “an engineering undergraduate, or a programmer with no academic background, we believe that anyone can be trained to work with us, and as such seek people from (a) variety of different backgrounds who are willing to take on the problems we are targeting.”
The problems we are targeting.
Then, a few lines down:
“We always welcome people with (a) background in programming, neuroscience, neurosurgery and design to work on our ongoing project.”
It’s just a little creepy.
Minimally, we can say that the scientist is at least tangentially connected to the military-industrial complex.
A MAN UNKNOWN
There are simply things about Moran Cerf that seem off. Even his white hat hacker persona is suspect. In the presentation, Cerf says “I used to break into banks and government institutes, to test their security” and leaves it as that. No further explanation.
At best, the viewer is left to assume Cerf was a tech-savvy individual who put his services to work for private security firms. At worse, we’re left to picture him as a former black hatter who got popped then rolled over for the feds — a character heavily romanticized in modern pop culture.
But the truth is far more interesting.
Back in 2012, a YouTube clip made the rounds of Cerf talking about the origins of his career as a hacker. From that video:
“So, ten years ago, I used to break into banks to make a living. I used to steal anything between $1,000 to $10,000 a week … and I was a part of a team of three people. We were hackers. We had a little office downtown in Tel Aviv in Israel. And we would break into banks, and steal their money, then cash it, and go back to the owners of the bank and go ‘Look, we stole your money. Why don’t you secure your bank better, give us a little bit of that, and let us secure your bank.”
Which is pretty much the definition of extortion.
Cerf wasn’t an activist, fighting for a cause, trying to make a point. That would be understandable, perhaps even commendable. But he was in it for the money. Some might argue that he was simply a thief, trying to get paid by demonstrating what a great thief he was.
AT A GLANCE
Moran Cerf is a highly skilled individual. That much is clear.
In fact, that’s the scariest thing about him. The fact that, under the right conditions, he could probably accomplish his vision of the future. He obviously has the intelligence and the technical ability.
He’s got connections — even if only minor — to powerful government entities like DARPA, so it’s doubtful red tape would be an issue. Those same governmental overseers would keep the tap on as long as he showed them the results they wanted.
And he seems — at least, to this observer — to be a man with whom morality is an afterthought. It’s all about pushing the science forward, seeing what can be accomplished. Human cost or potential societal consequences don’t seem to factor much.
In addition to the above things, he’s also a man of dubious criminal history who has no qualms about selling his skills and research methods to the same corporate and political interests who bombard us with commercials and campaign ads daily.
And yes, there could be good things along the way if Cerf’s research were allowed to progress unchecked.
“Imagine giving Einstein, Shakespeare, or Picasso access to the dreams they forgot in the morning,” Cerf says to the audience at one point.
Absolutely. Giving people access to their dream world could unlock human creative potential on a scale we can’t even fathom. And I hope those types of aspirations are ones keeping people like Moran Cerf awake at night.
But these are new frontiers of science and the boundary lines haven’t been drawn. Who knows where these paths could lead us — for good or for bad — in the coming years. So we should at least take notice of those who are on the cutting edge of such things.
And above all else, we, here in the now, should never be fooled into thinking that simply because a name and an idea are plopped onto a stage at a popular venue like TED, that the message should be absorbed without scrutiny.
Always question. Always think.
This article (This Scientist’s Ability to Hack Your Dreams May Be the Stuff of Nightmares) is an opinion editorial (OP-ED). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Underground Reporter. This article is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to James Holbrooks and UndergroundReporter.org. If you spot a typo, please email the error and the name of the article to firstname.lastname@example.org. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/rachel CALAMUSA