Solving Problems in Your Dreams
How to combine your next all-nighter with meaningful rest.
Posted Aug 29, 2015
You’ve likely heard a few stories of people happening upon fame-making discoveries in their dreams. Nobel Prize laureate Otto Loewi dreamed about the experiment which would prove his idea that nerve impulses are chemically transmitted. Pro-golfer Jack Nicklaus ended his run of poor scores after realizing he had been holding the club incorrectly. Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin hit on the idea for the book after experiencing a vision of the hideous phantasm laying stretched out on a table.
But the ability to utilize sleep as a problem-solving technique isn’t limited to a select few. We all are capable of making similarly important discoveries in our own dreams. The key is to gain lucidity.
Lucid dreaming is a hybrid state that is characterized by both waking and dream consciousness. Although it’s biomechanically similar to ordinary sleep, the consciousness accompanying lucid dreams lies in the higher activity level of the frontal areas of the brain. This is also a feature of very vivid and active states of waking consciousness, such as deep concentration and active listening. But the fact that you’re not living reality means that lucid dreaming differs from conscious experience in one dramatic way: You can learn to control the narrative of your own dreams.
We’ve come across many individuals who regularly use lucid dreaming to tackle problems they find difficult to solve in waking life. For example, one author cures acute writer’s block by summoning the characters of the novel in his dreams. One of the characters might say, “Oh, you shouldn’t kill Epstein in chapter 4, because we need him in chapter 12 to resolve everything.” One professional musician hears rock lyrics when he becomes lucid, which he writes down the next day. And one painter dreams he is standing at a door that separates him from his next masterpiece. After walking through the door, he studies the painting that appears and repaints it later from memory.
Lucid dreaming isn’t just for solving puzzles—it can even be used as therapy. For example, kids with frequent nightmares can be taught to get out of their nightmares. When taught to become lucid, they can “step back” and think to themselves “Right. It’s just a dream.”
In fact, lucid dreaming can be very effective in getting rid of general fears and phobias. It can function as a type of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a type of treatment employed by many psychologists for severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other conditions. The idea behind CBT is the best way to get over fear of a particular situation is to place yourself in that situation over and over again until your brain becomes desensitized to the trigger.
All that I’ve mentioned is just the tip of the iceberg: Learn more about the science of lucid dreaming and other techniques for cognitive enhancement in our newly released book, The Superhuman Mind: Free the Genius in Your Brain, available on Amazon, BAM, Barnes & Noble, and IndieBound.