During sleep, the brain has a ‘to do’ list that makes the average fairy godmother look like a lightweight.
As well as keeping us alive, it finds creative solutions to problems, consolidates memories, works through painful ones, stimulates new insight, processes emotion and works on important unfinished issues. Dreams are a critical part of the process. Here’s how to make them work for you …
Dreams are the work of a busy mind sorting through the information it’s collected during the day – some of it consciously and some of it not – to process information, emotion and solve problems.
The adage ‘sleep on it’, didn’t make itself into everyday language by bribery or coercion. It’s there because there’s scientifically proven truth behind it.
Dreams can lead to rich insights and creative solutions because the part of the brain that controls rationality, logical decision making and deciding what’s socially acceptable becomes dormant during sleep.
When the gatekeeper is gone the dreaming mind is free from censorship and the rules that might kneecap creativity in waking life.
This is why we can dream ourselves flying to Malta and asking the pilot, Mick, ‘Excuse me Mr Jagger, but any chance of popping my jet on auto and jamming with us for a bit? Don’t be shy. I’ll start.’
This disinhibition is critical to thinking creatively because it allows new ideas to form.
As you could imagine, it could get a bit messy if limbs joined the party and acted out the dreams of an unrestricted mind. Fortunately during dreaming the neurons in the spinal cord are shut down so limbs can’t move.
This is done to ensure we don’t hurt ourselves or anybody else when we fight slipper-stealing ninjas, deliver a left hook to an ex (come on – who hasn’t wanted to go there) or hand over the ironing to Mr Wonderful who’s confessed his undying love because we fit the glass slipper – wait – the trackies (it’s a dream – who’d wear a glass slipper if trackies did the job).
Here are some important discoveries that were made while people were sleeping:
- ‘Yesterday’ by The Beatles. One day in 1965 in a small room in London Paul McCartney woke up with a sweet tune playing in his head. He played it straight away, asked the fellas what they thought (they were keen) and then set about making sure he hadn’t heard it anywhere before.
‘I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it,’ he said. Fast forward a few decades and that sweet tune is the most covered song in history.
- Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. During a miserable summer in 1816 Mary Shelley and a group of friends went to stay with the poet Lord Byron. With the weather particularly moody, the friends were often forced inside where they told ghost stories.
One night Lord Byron suggested a competition that involved everybody making up their own ghost story. That night, Mary Shelley went to bed and a story ‘haunted her midnight pillow’. The story was Frankenstein, and it’s genius is still celebrated today.
- Robert Louis Stevenson dreamt the plot for Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. He became so adept at dreaming he could return to his dream the following night and dream a different ending.
- Dr Otto Leowi had a hunch about the chemical transmission of nerve impulses but was struggling to come up with a way to test his theory. He let the idea slip to the back of his mind but one night in 1920 he woke up, turned on the light and scribbled something down. When he woke up in the morning, he remembered he’d ‘written down something most important, but … was unable to decipher the scrawl.’ The next night the idea came back – it was the experiment that would help him prove his theory.
Thankfully at that time the world was free of funny YouTube clips to distract the brilliant from being brilliant, so Leowi was able to spend the next decade refining his theory. His work was critical to neuroscience and eventually won him the Nobel Prize for medicine.
- The sewing machine needle. In 1845 Elias Howe was struggling to invent a machine that could stitch faster than other machines could spin and weave. He fell asleep one night frustrated and dreamt – so the story goes – of being tied up from his toes by cannibals and hung over a pot in preparation of being their cup-a-soup snack. Every time he tried to escape their boiling pot, they’d poke him with spears. He woke up from his nightmare and was at first struck with the high emotion of the dream. But, one thing he remembered was that the spears had holes in the points. Holes in the points. Get it? Nuff said.
Manipulating the Content of Dreams
Harvard researchers have shown that it’s possible to manipulate the content of dreams.
Here’s how that works:
- Write down your problem – just a short phrase or sentence will do – and place it next to your bed. Keep a pen and paper nearby.
- Think about the problem for a few minutes before you settle down to sleep.
- Once you’re settled, try and think of the problem as an image. (The visual part of the brain is especially active during sleep, which is why dreams are so visually rich.)
- As you drift into sleep, tell yourself to dream about the problem.
- When you wake up, lie quietly for a short while. If you jump straight out of bed you’ll lose a lot of your dream content. Write down any trace of the dream that you remember. More may come as you write. If you can’t remember anything, pay attention to what you feel, the tempt the memory back.
Dreams are the normal, natural, unavoidable work of a sleeping brain. They are not prophetic, mystical or magical. Nor are the the domain of incense burning Skytrain Moon Pixielar and the dreamcatchers she collects on her astral travels. They are as much a neural process as the thinking and feeling done during when we’re awake.
Without the shutdown of the rational part of the brain dreams are also surprising, creative and insightful – which is excellent and something we should make work for us.
The good news is that it is possible to harness the power of a sleeping brain and set it to work on a particular issue … and you’ve gotta love anything that works like that while you’re sleeping.