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Sleep

Put Your Dreams to Work: How to Maximize Your Sleep

The amazing benefits of dream incubation and sleep seeding.

Key points

  • How to use dream incubation for creative problem solving.
  • Understanding the difference between lucid dreaming and dream incubation.
  • How artists put their dreams to work.

Researchers call it dream incubation, but I like to think of it as sleep seeding. I like the near-rhyme of it. How it invokes intention and release. Sleep seeding feels personal and mysterious, but with enough science behind it, I know I'm not just making it up. The science is interesting, but I would no sooner need someone to explain the inner workings of my favorite cozy blanket.

Sleep seeding is about consciously dedicating a few moments before falling asleep to telling my brain what I want from it. Often, not always, my brain listens and I wake up with results. How thrilling and curious to have an influence on the ineffable.

Here's a common example: As a writer, I might find myself not knowing where to go next with a story. When I'm in bed in that most relaxed state just before falling asleep, I invoke the part of the story I'm struggling with and ask my brain to find a solution. Dear Brain, What should happen next?

Similarly, if I'm in a poetry state of mind, I'll ask my sleep-brain to provide me with some poetic inspiration. Even if just a great line or two to work with. Incredibly, it often delivers. If I've been wanting to write about a particular idea, I'll focus my intention on that topic as I'm falling asleep. Otherwise, I'll simply think to myself: Sleep, please deliver something interesting tonight. I might then wake in the middle of the night with a line that has me reaching to jot a note. Sure, sometimes I wake in the morning to find I've written some midnight gibberish, but often I wake up to some good ideas. Ideas that come from beyond the limitations that the logical brain imposes on imagination.

One might ask, isn't this just lucid dreaming? We've been talking about that for centuries. But I think of sleep seeding as a cousin to lucid dreaming and nuanced from dream incubation. Lucid dreaming tends to be associated with an element of consciousness. The dreamer, though sleeping*, maintains a semi-conscious awareness of their dream. Some to the extent that they can control the content of the dream, dialogue with it, or observe the dream while maintaining an awareness of themselves and their environment.

*It has been hypothesized that lucid dreams are actually micro-moments of wakefulness, explaining why we have a consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. Lucid dreaming and dream incubation appear to be associated with hypnagogia, described as the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. Its opposite state is described as hypnopompic — the transitional state from sleep into wakefulness. Mental phenomena that may occur during this phase include hypnagogic hallucinations, lucid thought, lucid dreaming, and sleep paralysis.

With sleep seeding, I can't recall having the experience of witnessing my dream state, nor do I appear to have the ability to "steer" my thoughts. In fact, it's not like I'm having a dream at all. There does not appear to be (as far as I'm able to self-assess) imagery or story associated with this state of sleep. I simply suddenly wake up with the information I've asked for in my pre-sleep cognition. I call these "arrivals." The arrivals trigger me awake and I'm able to roll over and jot down the thought. It's kind of like waiting for a notification on your phone that an anticipated email has arrived. In nearly all cases, if I don't write down the arrival as soon as it appears, I will not remember it once I get out of bed.

These experiences are not unique. In her 2001 book The Committee of Sleep, Deirdre Barrett documents some of the great artists and writers throughout history who have reported using sleep similarly—for creative problem solving and inspiration.

I am not a sleep or dream expert, nor an interpreter of dreams. Dreams have always felt rather pragmatic. Despite their strangeness, I can typically understand their triggers. Something within my long-term memory or a recent experience are the seeds. They may grow wildly at night, but that doesn't make the seeds unreal. In fact, recent research has turned the whole mystical (and lucrative) business of dream interpretation upside down. Dreams are memory processors.

Understanding that dreams are triggered by recent thoughts and experiences, it stands to reason that we can seed our sleep and dreams with a specific intention. Perhaps we would like to experience a different outcome to a situation. Perhaps we would like to experience again what it was like to fall in love for the first time. Or, revisit a childhood place associated with warm memories. I've even been able to revisit dreams that were left unfinished or seed a recurring dream that I've found pleasant. But more often than not, my sleep seeding is for inspiration or creative problem-solving. Like waking up with the last line for a story I've been working on.

The next time you’re reading fiction or poetry, you might just be reading the author’s dreams. (That last line arrived in my sleep at 12:22 am on 1/15/22, with an email to myself as proof.)

References

Dreams reflect learning.

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