Try This At Home: Sleep as a Brainstorm Technique

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Pip, a 44 year old IT-specialist, once went on a long hike carrying a heavy backpack. While walking, his Achilles’ tendon started to hurt. “Then I dreamt that my feet were wheels that were turning. I realized that I had to literally roll my feet better, neatly putting the heel down and then rolling towards the toes. I tried this the next day and it actually helped. I still think back to that dream image every once in a while when I’m hiking”.

How would you solve problems in your sleep? Harvard Medical School psychology professor Deirdre Barrett, has been studying this question for over twenty years.

It may seem too good to be true, but Barrett’s study shows that sleeping in isn’t lazy. In fact, it’s an effective brainstorming method. Our dreaming brain is wildly active, and from a biochemical point of view it is primed to make new connections. The brain in REM sleep is hardwired to freely associate in all kinds of unexpected ways. While this may make dreams seem crazy and illogical, it’s also the most uninterrupted super-brainstorm you’re capable of. So when your rational thinking is simmering down, the rest of your brain has free range – especially in REM sleep, which is when we dream the most. And the longer you sleep, the more REM time you get.

Professor Barrett asks her students to look for creative solutions in their dreams, especially for problems where logical thinking seems to be insufficient. The result is that a sleeping brain can be pretty genius. Half of the students managed to dream about their problems, and forty percent of them found a solution within a week which hadn’t occurred to them at all during the day.

It seems that dreaming brainstorms work best with problems that can be visualized, either directly or as a metaphor. In dreaming most of your brain’s visual centers are running full speed ahead, so you’ll have a great basis for visual thinking. That could explain why people who are visual thinkers in their daily life (like artists for example), find more inspiration in their dreams than the average person. But Pip’s story shows that you can also let your dreams work for you if you don’t have a visual arts profession.

Some practice required

Your sleeping brain may be brilliant, but it’s not very easy to steer. Half of the students managed to dream about their problem, if they went to bed with the same question for a week. Only forty percent of them dreamed a solution. But this solution didn’t come immediately. In fact, sometimes a test subject would dream about a problem for two nights, only to get the solution from night three. And sometimes all dreaming was completely forgotten, but they woke up with a genius idea.

Emotional and personal problems score the highest.

It seems that the method is most successful if the problem is close to the dreamer’s heart. Actually, that’s true of waking thought, too, in that a puzzle or brain teaser is fun, but the things we really mull over are worries at work, or topics that have a personal impact. The more personal the topic, the easier it is to dream about, says Barrett.

Barrett is of the opinion that we can use our night time creativity in a much broader way. Her book The Committee of Sleep contains many examples of people from multiple fields –  mathematicians, golfers, musicians, engineers, etc. -who got inspiration from dreams. She also describes her students doing their homework assignments in their dreams. Most of them dream about personal problems, or items of primary focus, like mid terms. Some of them even manage to solve math problems while dreaming.

In my practice as a dream counselor, I see the creative dreaming mind from the opposite angle. The dream is already there, and we figure out what insights are wrapped up in the images. After an analysis, we often see the same thing Barrett describes: most dreams that people ask my help with, turn out to have a highly personal basis. And yes, often there’s a hint in the dreams leading to an out of the box solution that they wouldn’t have come up with in the day.

Sleep-storming: try this at home!

To make the most of your dreaming brain, while getting some extra sleep at the same time, following these five steps is considered a great start.

1. Start by stating the problem.

This may seem obvious, but experience shows that finding the right words is an important step. Just like when you’re awake, the more specific the question, the easier it is to find an answer. So be as narrow focused as you can be.

Vague questions tend to invoke generic answers. So instead of asking: what path should I choose in my work? Go with something like what issues do I need to deal with first to take the next step in my career?’ Writing the question down helps, as well, because it forces you to find words for the feelings that you haven’t been able to verbalize yet.

2. Be truthful and sincere in drafting the question, at least to yourself.

Sure, in the day we can reason ourselves out of anything: no, I really do perform best under pressure, I’m not angry at all, it’s all the other person’s fault. In sleep, no such luck. The prefrontal cortex (the part of our brains that’s active when we do our logical reasoning) shows almost no activity in REM sleep. The rest of our brain however, is exploding with activity.

This means that in dreams, we have the ability to make crazy connections and space for all of our memories. This is an ideal brainstorm scenario. It also means that in dreams, there’s no fooling yourself. Feelings are going to be felt in overdrive. If your question is sincere and to the point, dreaming gives an ideal scenario for brutally honest feedback and unexpected insights.

3. Remind yourself to dream on your question right before falling asleep.

People have developed many small habits to give the brain a little kickstart. The main point is that you focus on the question, so choose a way that suits you.

For example:

  • Repeat the question a few times in your head or out loud before closing your eyes to sleep.
  • Visualize the question as vividly as you can.
  • Write the question down in a notebook and put it on your nightstand.
    Bonus: you’ll be able to write down any thoughts you have immediately after you wake up.

4. Record your dreams immediately when you wake up.

Snuggle up a little longer in bed to remember your dreams. Either record them on your phone in a helpful app, or write them down in a nice dream journal. And when I say ‘dreams’, this also includes your first thoughts right when you wake up. Or maybe a song that’s playing in your head.

Pay specific attention to ‘weird’ or ‘bizarre’ elements, because that’s often a hint to a solution. Does everything in the dream seem bizarre or unrelated? No worries, dreaming is often remembered in metaphors or associations. Write the dreams down anyway, and look through it for a pattern of behavior or a theme. Does this make you think of any relevant situations?

5. Use your brilliant solution, if it seems useful to you.

Remember the prefrontal cortex and rational thinking that was offline in dreams, allowing you to freely brainstorm? This stage is the moment to get that logical brain of yours online again. Evaluate all of that dream inspiration that you got, after a week or so of dreaming on a problem.

Be critical: what applies to your situation? How can you use this information to your benefit? Sometimes the answer will be obvious, like Pip’s dream in the example above. Sometimes you’ll need to mull it over more, or maybe dream some more.

Have fun, Nicoline

More resources on dreams as a brainstorm tool

Below, I have listed some resources for more information. Let’s help you make the most of your sleeping brain – so you can litterally dream up new ideas.

  • For more studies by Deirdre Barrett visit her Harvard profile page.
  • For more dream reseach visit my ever-growing resources page.
  • Read about creative dreaming in this excellent article in Time Magazine
  • Let me tell you how to use sleep to make you smarter: listen to my interview on the Big Little Business Show
  • Check out this TEDx talk by Deirdre Barrett! While the sound quality is not optimal, she explains her super cool research in detail.
  • Professor Barrett explains more about dreams in the Speaking of Psychology podcast.