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Do You Have a Big Decision to Make? Sleep on It!

The Power of Dreams as Problem Solving Incubators.

Most people wake up from their dreams and either promptly forget them or they feel a lingering feeling associated with what they just saw. Modern dream theorists have described our dreams as “extensions of our waking lives that tend to explore the emotional and practical issues 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 these problems. Ernest Hartmann, MD, a psychiatrist who wrote a seminal article outlining the theory claims, “Dreams make connections more broadly than the waking mind. 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.”

Problem – Solving

New research shows dreams can be a powerful tool in solving your toughest problems. Brain & sleep-lab research shows that your dreams are a subconscious incubator to the toughest dilemmas you may face in your waking life. In a study conducted by Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett, PhD, author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving–And How You Can, Too, a third of the subjects reported that contemplating a problem before bedtime had helped them find a solution that had eluded them during the day.

Maarten Bos, who researches decision making and the unconscious mind at Harvard Business School, asserts that our unconscious mind is able to process multiple factors in a way that our conscious brain cannot handle when we are at rest, and specifically when we dream. Letting go of debating the issue and allowing it to appear in your dream, has greater potential for helping you discover the best solutions.

At Chicago`s Rush Presbyterian St. Luke`s Medical Center, psychologist Rosalind Cartwright concluded several studies on dreams and their role in processing information, teasing apart beneficial applications for problem solving from self-healing benefits of regulating emotional disturbances . She found that the study subjects would dream an introductory dream in the first REM cycle. We go into about 4-6 REM cycles per night, gradually increasing in length and intensity of dreaming. In the following two or three dreams the subjects kept developing the nightly theme, often incorporating scenes from the past involving similar problems. The final dream attempts to tie up loose ends.

But, did you know that you could use your dreams to “incubate” a solution to a problem, thus enacting problem solving “on demand”? This is referred to as “Dream Incubation” and has been practiced as far back as ancient Greek civilization. It is a way for the dreamer to plant an idea in his or her mind in order to augment the type of dream that occurs and to access a subconscious solution.

William Domhoff from the University of California, Santa Cruz developed the Continuity of Dreaming Theory, which asserted dream content is continuous with waking conceptions and emotional preoccupations.

Mastering new skills:

Robert Stickgold, of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, has dedicated his life to studying sleep as it relates to memory and learning. His studies show that while forging daytime experiences into long term memory through REM sleep, we learn to improve any learned skill, such as sports, musical instrument or surgery.

Stickgold believes that sleep allows us to process, consolidate and retain new memories and skills. In his lab, he investigates sleep’s effects on students who learn new tasks, such as complex finger-tapping sequences. His research has shown a correlation between sleep deprivation and a reduction in retention of new learned skills.

In a follow-up study, he showed that sleep deprivation the night after training blocked improvement on the task even after participants had two nights of normal sleep to recover.

Still, says Stickgold, even this distinction is less sharp than it might seem-sleep may effect “complex procedural” memories, like the ability to synthesize new information with old and develop new ideas.

In a frequently cited 2009 study, investigators at UCLA and the University of California, San Diego, participants who got a slug of REM sleep improved 40% on a remote-association test, while the other participants saw their scores go down. Sleep, it appeared, sharpened their brains’ ability to find links among given problems. A 2004 study from the University of Lübeck in Germany approached the same idea in a more revealing way.