07/12/2011 - 10:49

Problem-solving in your dream time

07/12/2011 - 10:49


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Don Newman, a young lecturer-mathematician, had been struggling with a very difficult mathematical problem.

DON Newman, a young lecturer-mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1950, had been struggling with a very difficult mathematical problem. “I was trying to get somewhere with it, and I couldn’t, and I couldn’t, and I couldn’t,” he recalled. 

One night, Newman dreamed that he was working on the problem when John Nash, a colleague and Nobel Laureate, appeared. Newman told Nash the problem and asked if he knew the solution.  Nash explained how to solve it and Newman awoke realising he had the answer.  He went on to publish a breakthrough paper in mathematics. 

There are many examples of people who made great discoveries in their dreams: Mendeleyev saw the periodic table of elements in a dream; Shelley conjured up Frankenstein; and Stevenson created Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Beethoven, Paul McCartney and Bill Joel all awoke with new songs ringing in their ears. Mahatma Gandhi’s call for a nonviolent protest of British rule of India was inspired by dream.

While we are not certain about all the reasons we dream (Sigmund Freud was only partially right), we do know that sleep goes in 90-minute cycles and that each one contains a period of rapid eye movement; and it’s right before that when most dreams occur. 

Using new brain scan technology, studies show that, during dreams, visualisation is more likely to occur and the social inhibitions of the brain are reduced so the mind is much more creative and able to see problems in different ways than with its day time logical thinking. Rats that have had REM sleep learn how to move through mazes more effectively than those that don’t.  In a number of controlled studies, people who had REM sleep were better able to provide creative solutions to problems involving virtual mazes and weather patterns than those who were awake or in non-REM sleep. Since REM sleep is the stage when dreams occur, there is strong evidence to indicate that dreaming can help with creative problem solving. 

Train your dreams to solve problems

In her article ‘Scientific American Mind’ (December, 2011), author, psychologist and lecturer at Harvard Medical School, Deirdre Barrett, describes a process that will help a person focus on a problem and solve it during their dreams.  She calls this ‘dream incubation’.

Dream incubation is a process of intentionally trying to dream a solution to a particular problem, and involves the following steps:

1) Write down your problem in a brief phrase or sentence and place this note next to your bed. Also keep a pen and paper (and maybe a torch) alongside it.

2. Review the problem for a few minutes when you get into bed. 

3. Before falling asleep, visualise the problem as a concrete image, if possible.

4. Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem as you drift off to sleep.

5. On waking, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether you recall any trace of a dream and try to invite more of the dream to return. Write it down.

For a more advanced approach, add these steps:

6. At bedtime, picture yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening and writing on your bedside notepad.

7. Arrange objects connected to the problem on your night table.  

Dr Barrett states that she has trained many professionals using this technique and a significant number report that they were able to solve work problems after one week of incubation practice.

We spend almost a third of our lives asleep and a third of that time dreaming. Research shows that, in a short amount of time, you can learn to focus dreams on your problems and possibly solve them. This brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘brainstorming’.  

When you go to sleep, your brain is already at work, examining the challenges and concerns of your life.  Using the discoveries that have been made about the sleeping brain, we can harness our dreams to provide solutions to our problems.  It’s solving a problem while on a vacation. 


Ron Cacioppe is managing director of Integral Development, one of Perth’s most unique and experienced leadership and management consultancies. He is also adjunct professor at Curtin’s Australian Sustainable Development Institute.

Contact Ron on 9242 8122 | admin@integral.org.au | www.integral.org.au


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