Doctor Puzzled as Radiation Therapy Changes Color of Man's Dreams

Most people take it for granted that dreams will play out in technicolor splendor. But for some unfortunate sleepers, dreams unfold in boring black and white. Such was the case for a 59-year-old Australian man who made medical news recently after receiving radiation treatment for an eye tumor. He went into therapy dreaming in monochrome but emerged a very different man.

As his doctor, Professor Michael McKay of the North Coast Cancer Institute, wrote in the journal Sleep Medicine, the man started having technicolor dreams after his first round of cerebral radiotherapy. “He had previously only dreamed in black and white,” McKay wrote in the article, which is still in press. “During the first week of radiotherapy, he developed ‘rapid’ vivid-coloured dreams, which persisted throughout the course of his radiotherapy.”

McKay reports that the man’s newly colorful dreams — the first he’d ever had — consisted of algebra questions appearing on a blackboard (though the man had never studied algebra!), a moment counting all the cars he had ever owned, and another in which he identified different species of fish.

Some scientists think people who dream in black and white were only exposed to monochrome TV as children.

Flickr / Misha Sokolnikov

He doesn’t say outright that the radiation therapy is, definitively, what caused the technicolor change, but the odd coincidence of events — his dreams reverted to black and white when radiotherapy ended — forced him to consider how the man’s brain might have brought this about.

Scientists already knew that a small percentage of people don’t dream in color. In 2008, a study suggested that monochromatic dreamers tended to be people who were exposed to black and white TV as kids, and the implications of this paper — that younger populations were more likely to dream in color — are corroborated by another study showing that there were more monochrome dreamers in the 1940s than in the 2000s. What was strange in the radiation patient’s case is that this trait could be modified.

One of the man's first dreams in technicolor was about fish.

A possible explanation, McKay writes, is that the radiation affected the electrical activity of the part of the brain that deals with dreams. But there’s just one problem: Scientists haven’t really been able to agree on what those are. Most of what we know, he points out, comes from studies of people who can’t dream because parts of their brains don’t function properly, and those have pointed at the frontal and temporal-occipital lobes as the brain’s dream regions. More recently, scientists identified the dream “hot zone” as the brain’s posterior cortex. The technicolor dreamer got radiation through his ipsilateral lobes, so how it affected his dreams remains anyone’s guess.

There was a huge opportunity to study this further, but McKay missed it. If he’d run an EEG on his patient — which measures brain activity whether the subject is asleep or awake — he’d have been able to better quantify what effect the radiation was actually having on the man’s brain activity. For now, however, exactly how the man got his brief glimpse into the world of technicolor dreaming remains a mystery.

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