In the 1990s, a physician called James Pagel interviewed creatives in the film industry about how their dreams impacted their creative decision making. He found they remembered their dreams much more than the general population and they prescribed more meaning to their dreams than others. This was not an isolated phenomenon—across all disciplines, the creative power of dreams has left its mark. Why? Because dreams can be used as a powerful creative problem-solving tool.
The second side of the creative coin
In 1926, Graham Wallas proposed that the creative process can be split into four distinct stages. This model of creativity is still with us, almost 100 years later. Countless variations in the double diamond design process show us that there are two sides to the creative coin. Logical, linear, and rational phases of thinking balance with non-linear, divergent, and much less understood phases. These non-linear phases are where a lot of creative blocks originate. They're elusive, ephemeral and often end in a eureka moment that feels completely random. I'm sure you've experienced this when struggling over a problem for days, only to have the solution suddenly present itself whilst brushing your teeth.
Neuroscientists think this phenomenon happens because of a 'spreading cortical activation'. Your unconscious mind makes divergent, seemingly unrelated connections and organises them to the point where they can be transferred into the conscious mind. During this incubation period, think of your brain as Marie Kondo, organising your thoughts until they can actually be understood.
Your brain, but different
If creative thinking needs periods of unconscious incubation, dreams are that incubator. During REM sleep, theta waves weave loose, divergent connections into a vivid narrative that you can understand. Mental blocks can be tackled from new angles in a risk-free environment where the normal rules need not apply.
Dreams are just thinking, in a very different biochemical state - Deirdre Barrett
Your waking life is full of constraints. Take language as an example. Your vocabulary is the frame through which all your conscious thoughts have to pass. During dreams, doing away with words altogether means that you're able to access tacit knowledge and explore ideas that are inaccessible during waking hours. Whilst dreaming, mental blocks can be personified as people, places or animals. They often have meaning beyond their appearance and can be interacted with in new and useful ways.
When Elias Howe dreamt he was being chased by cannibals who gripped spears with a hole through the tip, he woke up elated. He'd been stuck trying to develop the lock-stitch sewing machine and instantly realised the needles needed to have holes in the tip instead of the heel, like the spears he’d been running from all night. His dream had served up the solution to his creative block.
I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on. Part of my function as a writer is to dream whilst awake - Stephen King
Dreams can also help you see things from new perspectives. Many actors even work with dream coaches as part of their creative process. During filming, the Power of the Dog cast were coached by Kim Gillingham. Gillingham utilised Jungian dreamwork to help the actors dream as their characters in order to access more authentic feelings and create a more nuanced performance.
It's not just actors that can benefit from this kind of empathy. All design involves empathising with someone else. It's easy to understand how being able to see through the eyes of your client, customer or user can help you create more empathetic, nuanced work. Dreams can also help you understand your own work better. In Writers Dreaming, Naomi Epel tells how when Maya Angelou dreamt of climbing up the scaffolding of a half-built skyscraper with "no sense of dizziness or discomfort or vertigo", she knew the dream meant her work was “telling the truth and telling it well”.
A glance down the list of award-winning movies on our big screens this year highlights another ability of dreams. The divergent thinking that makes dreams so surreal. Sci-fi epic Dune had to free itself from a lot of the tropes and clichés of the genre, as well as several attempts to make the notoriously unfilmable film already. To escape the imagery of previous attempts and references, director Villeneuve banned the internet. Instead, he had the cast immerse themselves in the source material and incubate dream imagery. They would dissect their dreams as a group to help them get past the obvious imagery and innovatively tell an old story.
We spend half of our lives dreaming, dreams are a powerful message—a poetic message coming from somewhere that we still have difficulty understanding - Denis Villeneuve
How to use dreams as a creative tool
Dreams can, and should, be a part of your creative thinking process. They can help you get unstuck, overcome creative block and systematically engage in innovative, divergent thinking. Although learning to lucid dream on demand takes years of practice, being able to reliably remember your dreams and mine them for ideas takes mere weeks.
Step 1: Improve dream recall
No matter how artistic, vivid or fantastical your nightly visions are, if you don't remember them then they're not of much use. Luckily it's an easy skill to learn, and you'll see results very quickly.
- In the morning, before opening your eyes, just lie there for a moment. See if you can remember even the smallest fragment of detail or emotion.
- Jot down any thoughts or memories in a dream journal (or speak into a smartphone), no matter how seemingly unrelated.
Try it every day, even if you only remember one word or one emotion. It often only takes the tiniest thread to pull on, for the dream to come flooding back.
Step 2: Dream incubation
Deirdre Barrett is one of the leading experts on dreams, writing books and teaching at Harvard Medical School. In a 2017 study, Barrett developed a dream incubation protocol that proved the creative problem-solving power lying latent in our dreams. After a week of following this protocol, half of the participants dreamt of their problem, and a quarter solved it:
- Write the problem down or have objects, posters or notes related to the problem near your bed.
- Review the problem for a few minutes just before you get into bed.
- Once in bed, visualise the problem as an object, image or place. Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you drift off.
- Keep going with your dream journal.
- Spend some time reviewing your notes, recordings and thoughts about your recent dreams.
The key to using your dreams to overcome creative block is to treat your dreams like the irreplaceable tools they are. Interrogate them for common threads or see what strange and surprising imagery your dreams have generated.
Step 3: Lucid dreaming
Being able to lucid dream on demand is the holy grail for most serious dreamers, but it's elusive and requires a lot of patience. Many artists utilise the semi-lucid state at the beginning of sleep to access the kinds of vivid dream images helpful to creative thinking. The surrealists were famous for their desire to unlock the creative power of dreams. To access this creative state, try re-enacting Salvador Dali's, 'Slumber with key':
"You must seat yourself in a bony armchair, preferably of Spanish style, with your head tilted back and resting on the stretched leather back. Your two hands must hang beyond the arms of the chair, to which your own must be soldered in a supineness of complete relaxation. […] In this posture, you must hold a heavy key which you will keep suspended, delicately pressed between the extremities of the thumb and forefinger of your left hand. Under the key, you will previously have placed a plate upside down on the floor…. the moment the key drops from your fingers, you may be sure that the noise of its fall on the upside-down plate will awaken you."
Your dreams are the perfect incubator for creative ideas. Their visual, loosely-connected nature can help you see beyond the obvious. The emotionally led narratives that your mind weaves can help you connect with your own intuitive senses, overcome creative blocks and empathise with others.
Creatives across all fields have used dreams to their advantage. They can be instrumental in any field where you need to solve a problem or be innovative.
Learning to use your dreams as a valuable creative tool doesn't take much. Simply treating your dreams as meaningful will help them become so. A slight adjustment to your bedtime and morning routines will soon allow you to understand and harness the power of your dreams.