Cover Story

Popular literature abounds with examples of famous people who have used dreams to aid their creations. Billy Joel reports dreaming the music to his pop tunes in orchestral form, novelist Stephen King turned a recurring childhood nightmare into the book "Salem's Lot," and Salvador Dali was so obsessed with the creative potential of dreams that he deliberately fell asleep with a spoon in his hand. When he nodded off, the spoon would clatter to the ground and wake him up, providing fresh dream images for his surrealistic paintings.

But from a scientific perspective, there is scant evidence to connect these compelling areas. While recent neuroimaging studies have examined the brain regions responsible for dreaming, for example, parallel research on dreams and the brain in the throes of creation is not yet under way.

That said, intriguing new work suggests possible links between dreams and creativity. Aside from indicating that dreams may help ordinary people find creative solutions to everyday problems (see page 48), recent research shows that fantasy-prone people may have higher dream recall than others. It also suggests that dreams themselves--with their idiosyncratic imagery, colorful extrapolations on the same theme and nonjudgmental stance--model at least one aspect of the creative process, the free association that precedes actual creation.

"To be creative, you need a way to let those circuits float free and really be open to alternatives that you would normally overlook," explains Robert Stickgold, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University who has conducted seminal studies on dreams, sleeping and learning. "Several features of REM sleep predispose the brain to this activity."

A dream-prone personality?

It may be the case that people who use dreams for creative purposes naturally have greater access to the dream world than others, research suggests. Two streams of literature support this contention: One links specific personality characteristics such as openness, proneness to fantasy and schizotypic tendencies with the penchant to remember and report dreams; the other connects creativity and these same personality variables.

Findings reported in the May issue of Personality and Individual Differences (Vol. 34, No. 7) strengthen the association. In one of the longest and most comprehensive studies on dream recall and personality factors to date, University of Iowa psychologist David Watson, PhD, collected dream-recall reports from 193 undergraduate students every day for three months, as well as data on personality variables, sleep schedules and the students' alcohol and caffeine intake.

Personality characteristics were by far the most significant factor in dream recall, says Watson. Those prone to absorption, imagination and fantasy were much more likely than others to say they remembered their dreams and to report dreams with vivid imagery, he found. The same group also scored higher than others on the "openness" scale of the five-factor personality inventory. The scale describes those who are open to new experiences and take a rich, complex approach to life--"the 'art film' circuit," as Watson puts it.

Watson, an empiricist, says that he was surprised by the finding. "I actually thought dream recall was going to be related to stress and anxiety, because the literature indicates that the things that disturb sleep tend to promote dream recall," he says. Instead, his data support the idea that there's a type of person more likely to tune into their dreams than others, he notes.

A related study in the September Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 85, No. 3) by psychologist Shelley Carson, PhD, a lecturer at Harvard University, found that 182 Harvard undergraduates who scored high on creative achievement tests also tested lower on "latent inhibition," the ability to filter out internal and external stimuli that aren't relevant to current goals or survival. The study is the first to directly test the association between creativity and low latent inhibition, which also has been linked to mental disorders such as schizophrenia, schizotypal personality disorder and proneness to psychosis.

The findings suggest that creative people may naturally "take in" more extraneous material than others, including, possibly, their dream material, Carson notes. There may well be biological underpinnings to these tendencies--possibly related to the mesolimbic-dopamine system--which she and others will likely explore in the future, she notes.

Dreaming resembles creativity

There may be a good metaphorical reason that artists are so attached to their dreams. In the broadest sense, dreams mimic a critical stage of creativity: brainstorming the range of possibilities, or what psychoanalysts call free association, says Harvard's Stickgold.

Neuroimaging studies by neurologist Allen R. Braun, MD, of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, neuropsychologist Mark L. Solms, PhD, of St. Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, and others show how this might happen. In essence, the brain areas responsible for executive control, logical decision-making and focused attention shut down during dreaming, while sensory and emotional areas come alive. In addition, short-term memory functions are deactivated, so that the emotional content of images remains, but the waking context does not.

At least one study by Stickgold supports the idea. In 1999 research reported in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (Vol. 11, No. 2), Stickgold and colleagues woke 44 undergraduate students from REM sleep--the deepest stage of sleep most strongly associated with dreaming--and immediately gave them a word-priming task. Subjects were shown a word, and immediately after, another word or cluster of nonsense letters. Subjects were then asked to say if the second item was a word or not.

Previous studies of normally awake subjects showed that when the word pairs were strongly related--as with "wrong" and "right," for example--subjects could identify the second target word faster than if the words weren't strongly related--as with "wrong" and "house," for example. But when they were tested immediately after being awakened from REM sleep, the exact opposite happened. The weaker primes produced faster responses.

"It's as if the brain is preferentially searching out and activating weak associates, unexpected paths, instead of the obvious, normally strong associates," Stickgold says.

This unique activity provides both a nice metaphor and a possible explanation for the way artists and other creative people operate: in essence, thinking outside the box, whether consciously or unconsciously, Stickgold comments.

"It is as if the [dreaming] brain has been tuned to a state for finding and testing and thinking about new associations," Stickgold says. "To paraphrase Robert Frost, the brain takes the path less traveled by, and that makes all the difference."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.