“Let me sleep on it, I’ll give you an answer in the morning.”-Meat Loaf
We spend one third of our lives sleeping. With a little bit of luck, that means that most of us will spend 28 years of our lives asleep. During sleep our minds are more active than they are during the daytime. Sometimes we toss and turn, but it is our brain’s most creative period of our circadian cycle. Our conscious, critical, mind shuts down, our creative and playful side takes over, and we have bizarre, funny, disturbing, and sometimes horrible brain experiences that we call dreams. Often, the secret to good sleep is accepting that this is merely a part of the sleep process. Learning to roll with these events is very helpful. Learning to make practical use of our brain on sleep is even better.
Each of us has the potential to use our slumber time to solve some of our problems that we have when awake. Many of us are aware that this occasionally happens spontaneously. We go to sleep with some minor issue on our mind, such as where are my car keys, and wake up knowing exactly where we left them. Usually, we don’t make much of this, pass it off as a coincidence, and go on with our day. We have missed a valuable lesson here. This is an experience that we can duplicate consciously should we choose to do so. The reality is that brilliant minds throughout history have done this for centuries.
Author John Steinbeck said that “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep have worked on it.” The French poet St. Paul Boux had a sign over his bedroom door that read “Poet at work,” and many inventions such as Elias Howe’s sewing machine, and J. B. Parkinson’s computer-controlled anti-aircraft gun were conceived while sleeping. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from an idea that came to him in a dream. Golfer Jack Nicklaus credited in improvement in his golf game to dreaming of a new way to grasp his club. Inventor Thomas Edison went so far as to ask his subconscious mind to answer his problems before he closed his eyes to sleep. Singer-songwriter Billy Joel often dreams musical arrangements, and Mary Shelley dreamed the Frankenstein story before she wrote her novel.
While many would pass these examples off as anecdotal evidence of coincidences that happened to geniuses, there are a number of studies of regular, everyday people that show all of us may have this capacity. A study completed in 1978 studied this phenomenon calling it incubation dreaming, and found that within five weeks 38% of subjects studied could conjure up answers to daily problems while dreaming. In 1986 a study of 76 college students was conducted asking students to incubate dreams addressing problems as a homework assignment in a class on dreams. They were asked to develop a problem based on personal issues that would have a recognizable solution. They would ponder the problem before bed at night briefly, clear their mind, and go to sleep. They recorded every dream that they had over a seven-day period. At the end of the study 76% believed that there recorded dreams provided a definite answer to their problem. It’s also quite possible that this percentage would be higher if the subjects repeated this procedure and consciously worked to develop this as a skill.
There are many ways that a person can use sleep to problem solve. Studies show that information inputted before bedtime, whether through listening, reading, or writing, is better retained if one goes to bed immediately after. It is believed that the information is better digested because there are no interfering events that follow it. The brain gets to save the information in the same way that a computer does. It appears that sleep improves insight as well as retention, and unlocks creativity that leads to the development of new ideas.
While it’s unclear why this happens, there were a number of theories as to why this occurs. Dr. Joanne Cantor, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that “It’s as if your conscious brain makes a commitment to go in a certain direction, and it resists the mind wandering that might bring up novel approaches. It’s only when you quit that concentrated focus and that your brain is more open to far-flung ideas that might be residing in the remote corners of your brain.”
What’s the best way to make use of your sleep for problem solving? Your expectation that this strategy will work is vitally important. Brain scans performed on subjects while sleeping show that the brain literally relaxes and allows new neural pathways to develop while recruiting different parts of the brain to solve the problem. You must be relaxed and expect success, maybe not the first night, but expect it over the course of seven days.
The strategy that you choose will be influenced by the type of problem that you are trying to solve, but here are some general strategies:
1. Keep a notebook at your bedside. Jotting down random ideas before bed and recording your dreams immediately upon awakening is very helpful to this process. Focusing in on the problem before bed and then letting it go is crucial. Rather than worry about the problem as you toss and turn, write it down, and remind yourself that “there’s no need to worry or ruminate about that, it’s written down so I can let it go and sleep.” Recording dreams upon awakening is also important because most dreams are forgotten within seconds after waking. If you wake in the middle of the night, jot down whatever dream content you can remember, forget about it for the moment, and go back to bed. Remember, “there’s no need to worry about it, I’ve written it down.”
2. Make use of weekends for this practice initially. This strategy works best when you wake up naturally, without an alarm.
3. Make the problem one of the last things that you think about before closing your eyes. Don’t dwell on it however. Remember, no need to, you wrote it down.
4. If you are working on the development of a physical skill then the strategy will be slightly different. For example, if you are learning to play the guitar then picturing your fingers hitting all the chords correctly while you doze off is helpful. If you have a job interview coming up, or a speech to make, visualizing and mentally rehearsing a successful performance before slumber can help create neural pathways that will allow you to succeed in real time when it counts. Just be sure that your visualization is in the present tense and completely positive.
5. Look for patterns and symbolism in your dreams. This is where recording the dreams over a period of consecutive nights gets interesting. Dream content often consists of bizarre interpretations of events that occur during the day. Since the days are occupied with conscious problem-solving, then it makes sense that when sleep unlocks your critical mind, the solution has a chance to emerge. Learning to interpret your dreams opens up incredible opportunities to solve many of your problems and can give you great insight into yourself. Remember, the solution to your problem may not be resolved over one night, although it’s possible, but it may emerge over the course of a few.
Give these suggestions a try. I’m sure you will find it incredibly interesting and useful. Gaining insight into your unconscious mind can be fascinating and exciting. This is a skill, like anything else, and can be developed. You’re sleeping, how hard can it be?
“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you will join us.”-John Lennon
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