Looking for a solution? Dream on.

October 21st, 2011

In keeping with my seasonal display of colorful, bumpy gourds and miniature pumpkins, the November issue of Scientific American Mind magazine arrived yesterday with a cornucopia of provocative articles on consciousness, free will and creativity. In fact, Harvard Medical School Psychologist Deirdre Barrett weaves all three topics into her cover story “Answers in Your Dreams.”

After a two-decade lull, brain researchers have begun studying dreams seriously again, and Barrett presents a number of studies, including her own, conducted over the past several years that suggest the alternative state of consciousness we call sleep is active and fertile ground for dreaming up true inspiration. Here are some highlights:

  • Dreams are simply thought in a different biochemical state.
  • While continuing to focus on all the same issues that concern us while we are awake, the sleeping brain can help us find solutions outside our normal patterns of thought.
  • Brain areas that restrict our thinking to the logical and familiar are much less active during dream-rich periods of rapid eye movement (REM) slumber. Such freedom from conditioned responses is a crucial part of creative thought.

In her newest study, Barrett found that intentionally trying to dream about a particular problem, called dream incubation, increases the chance you’ll come up with a solution.  Here’s a recap of her suggestions for harnessing the dream state and tapping your creative problem-solving abilities.

1.     Write down your problem as a brief statement and place it next to your bed. Also keep a pen and paper – and perhaps a flashlight – alongside it.

2.     Review the problem for a few minutes before going to bed.

3.     Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image, if possible.

4.     Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem as you drift off to sleep. Picture yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening and writing on your bedside notepad.

5.     When you awake, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether you recall any trace of a dream and try to invite more of the dream to return. Write it down.

If you have a problem, chances are good that you also have the solution. And if it doesn’t come easily in waking hours, I hope you’ll try a little dream incubation. The dreams where you can creatively solve a problem or come up with ideas, well, those dreams are indeed sweet.


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3 Responses to “Looking for a solution? Dream on.”

  1. Ron Krumpos says:

    Trying to solve a problem in your dreams is usually impossible. It also causes poor sleep. A quote from my free ebook on comparative mysticism:

    The most important aspect of sleep, especially in mysticism, is the dreamless state. Many psychologists and physiologists believe that deep, dreamless sleep is vital for complete rest and rejuvenation of the mind and body. Those people who seem to dream incessantly might often wake up more tired than when they went to bed. Many mystics do claim a parallel between deep meditation and dreamless sleep. In both cases, ego and individuality are forgotten, the sense of self and other are absent, and pure consciousness is actuated.

  2. Julie Tarney says:

    I appreciate your perspective, Ron. Another point of view is a good trigger for comparative thought. It’s my belief that the stages of sleep signal different layers of consciousness — natural states for moving from our outer physical reality to an inner dimension of deep awareness and knowledge. There are levels of consciousness where questions can be answered and problems solved for those who choose that experience.

  3. Ron Krumpos says:

    I agree Julie that self-directed conscious dreaming is possible, it is quite difficult for most people. My previous reference was to ad hoc problems encountered while dreaming. Their solution seems to be just out of reach.

    In my ebook I added a hypothesis, with a mea culpa:

    Few mystics equate dreamless sleep with divine union, yet few would rule it out entirely. Given their assumption divine essence is within every person, but because it is usually unrealized, dreamless sleep might be necessary for us to reunite with our true self, with the source and spirit of our being. Not all mystics would agree and most psychiatrists, physiologists and non-religious persons would not even consider it. It is, however, temporary and not conscious.