Cover Story

Harvard astrophysicist Paul Horowitz puts a lot of brain power into one of his main jobs, designing the control systems for high-tech telescopes.

Yet when he's stumped about a particular design problem, he knows all he has to do is sleep on it: His dreams give him the answer in perfect detail.

"Often in his waking life he has two solutions he's debating, and occasionally his dreams will tell him which one is better," says Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, PhD, who interviewed Horowitz and others for her book "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving--And How You Can, Too" (Crown, 2001). "But more often, they'll tell him something he hasn't yet thought of. It's that straightforward."

While most of us will never experience such striking creative clarity in our dreams, dreams can nevertheless be valuable aids to our creativity if we pay attention to them, says Barrett. Indeed, our nighttime visions can sometimes make a leap that waking consciousness cannot, according to Barrett.

"There's a significant number of situations where the limitations of our waking logic and preconceptions keep us stuck on a problem," Barrett says. "And a dream can solve it."

Dreams and continuity theory

Dreams, say modern dream theorists, are extensions of our waking lives that tend to explore the emotional and practical issues and problems that concern us the most. As the dreaming mind casts these issues in symbolic terms,it may also be struggling to find solutions to some of those problems, says renowned dream researcher Ernest Hartmann, MD, a psychiatrist in Newton, Mass., who wrote a seminal 1996 article outlining the theory. Recent research also suggests dreams may help build the foundations for new learning.

New studies are further bolstering some of these ideas. In a series of as-yet unpublished studies, Harvard University sleep researcher Robert Stickgold, PhD, and colleagues are continuing the thread of previous studies that showed that sleeping seems to consolidate and foster daytime learning. By waking subjects up just as they fell asleep, and asking them to immediately report on their dreams, the researchers showed that subjects began to process images and sensations from the computer game Tetris as soon as they fell asleep, suggesting their nighttime brain processing was helping them master the game.

In the new studies, subjects played the video game Alpine Racer II, a downhill-skiing simulator. As with the Tetris studies, participants began to process its images and sensations as soon as they fell asleep. Also similar to the Tetris findings, subjects already expert in skiing reported that they dreamt about places they had actually skied rather than about the game, indicating they didn't need to work out the same issues that novice players did. Stickgold recently won a National Institute of Mental Health grant to continue this work.

More intriguingly for dream scholars, the team also looked at what happened to Alpine Racer subjects after a period of REM, or rapid-eye movement sleep, which is the sleep period most likely to produce dreams. In as-yet unpublished research noted briefly in a review article in the Nov. 2, 2001 issue of Science (Vol. 294), Stickgold and colleagues first let Alpine Racer subjects get two hours of REM sleep before waking them up. As they fell back asleep, the team woke them up again and asked about their dream images.

This time dreamers didn't report concrete images of skiing as they did in the earlier studies. Instead, they reported what seemed to be symbolic images of the game and their role in it--scenes like falling down a hill and rushing through a dark forest with the feeling that one's body was as stiff as if one were on a conveyor belt--"a beautiful depiction of the way you hold your body when you downhill ski," says Stickgold.

Although the concept needs further testing, "what it sounds like is now this memory has moved along," Stickgold notes. "We are now one step further into what the old dream researchers used to call metaphor. The exciting thing," he adds, "is it's almost feeling like we can now trace the processing of these memories across the brain through the night."

Seeking insight through dreams

As the dreaming mind works to process feelings, concepts and to potentially solve problems, the conscious mind can give it an extra boost, notes Stanley Rosner, PhD, a Connecticut-based private practitioner who has written three books on creativity and discusses ways to bridge the gap between psychoanalysis and cognitive psychology partly through dream work in a 2000 article in Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training (Vol. 37, No. 2).

The key is to translate dreams' messages into creative urges and products, he says. "That requires enough cognition to be able to do the translating," says Rosner, "and the ability to relax the controls and gain enough access to the strivings, fantasies and dreams that are in there."

There are many ways to do this: hypnotically preparing your mind to receive an answer to a problem through a dream; writing out your dreams immediately on awakening from them; rendering them artistically; discussing them with a friend or therapist; and trying to change their course through self-suggestion, says Alan Siegel, PhD, a professor at the California School of Professional Psychology and author of "Dream Wisdom: Uncovering Life's Answers in Your Dreams" (Celestial Arts, 2002).

Artists and scientists have used such techniques for decades. A famous example is 19th-century German chemist Friedrich A. Kekule, who had been working intensely to determine the molecular structure of benzene. On falling asleep one night, he dreamed of a snake taking its tail in its mouth and had his answer: Benzene is a closed ring.

Putting our dreams to work

You don't need to be famous or even conventionally creative to use dreams in your daily life, however, research shows. In a new study reported in the Creativity Research Journal (Vol. 15, Nos. 2 & 3) in August, sleep specialist James Pagel, MD, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine and the Rocky Mountain Sleep Disorders Center and colleague Carol Kwiatkowski, PhD, asked 517 ordinary, nonfamous people being treated in Pagel's sleep lab for sleep disorders whether the degree to which they reported a creative process in daily life was related to their use of dreams. In particular, Pagel says, he wanted to see if people who produced a creative product for a living--artwork or writing, for example--were more likely than others to use their dreams in daily life. Participants noted on a five-point scale how likely dreams were to influence their choices in a range of life issues including waking activities, creative activities, working activities, organization, decision-making, personal goals, recreation, emotions, reactions to stress and plans for the future.

Based on subjects' reports, the team divided the sample into three groups: one that described having no creative process, another reporting an "experiential" creative process like camping or gardening, and a third group noting they had a creative process that yielded a creative product.

Somewhat to the researchers' surprise, everyone but those who reported no creative process at all said they used their dreams in a variety of ways. That included a nurse who cited fruit-canning as her creative process, and others who named grandparenting and hiking as theirs.

"The fun thing about this study," says Pagel, "was that the big difference in the sample was whether you had a creative process at all. If you said you had a creative process and it was gardening, then you used your dreams."

Studies like these are helping to cement the notion that dreams hold an important potential that the waking mind does not, dream specialists say.

"Dreams make connections more broadly than the waking mind," Hartmann notes. "You can be working on a problem and you can't quite see how to get there. But you go to sleep and you have a dream. It makes new connections, and it helps you make sense of it. Dreams can be very useful in this sense."

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