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“Sleeping on it” has long been one of the best pieces of advice when faced with a difficult decision or a complex problem. A good night’s sleep has a way of helping us sort through our options and identify solutions that were invisible to us the day before.
Exactly how sleep works its problem-solving magic is more of a mystery, but it’s well known that getting enough high-quality sleep can improve your memory. Further, when you learn a new skill, the memories are vulnerable until they are
"solidified" in your brain. It appears that sleeping plays a key role in this process, which may explain why infants, who are constantly learning new skills, require so much more sleep than adults.
But new research is revealing there’s another part of sleep that also makes a mark on your brain, and its ability to solve problems, and that is your dreams.
Your Dreams May Help You Solve Problems
Dreaming may seem completely illogical, abstract and at times downright crazy, but it’s this type of “out of the box” thinking that may actually be helping you to problem-solve.
According to Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, dreaming is just another form of thinking, done while you’re asleep instead of awake. In studies, Barrett revealed that about a quarter of college students were able to focus on a problem before bed for a week, then dream a solution to that very problem.
As LiveScience reported, Barrett also noted that just about every type of problem has been solved in a dream, according to scientific and historical literature. However, most often problems solved via dreams involved visualizations (such as picturing a new invention) or drastically new ideas that contradicted conventional thought.
She told LiveScience:
"I think that dreams and REM sleep have probably further evolved to be useful for really as many of the things that our thinking is useful for … It's just extra thinking time, so potentially any problem can get solved during it, but it's thinking time in the state that's very visual and looser in associations, so we've evolved to use it especially to work on those kinds of problems."
Dreaming Also Makes You More Efficient
Dreams, it seems, not only serve as a way to make solutions “appear” before our very eyes, they may also make us better able to handle complex tasks during our waking hours.
In a separate study by Harvard Medical School researchers, 99 volunteers were asked to learn the layout of a 3D maze on a computer screen so they could find their way to a tree inside it.
Those volunteers that were able to take a nap after their learning were able to find the tree faster, and were 10 times better at finding the tree than those who did not sleep or dream.
Professor Robert Stickgold, of Harvard Medical School, told the Telegraph:
“What's got us really excited, is that after nearly 100 years of debate about the function of dreams, this study tells us that dreams are the brain's way of processing, integrating and really understanding new information.
Dreams are a clear indication that the sleeping brain is working on memories at multiple levels, including ways that will directly improve performance.
In fact, this may be one of the main goals that led to the evolution of sleep. If you remain awake you perform worse on the subsequent task. Your memory actually decays, no matter how much you might think about the maze.”
The researchers suggested that it’s not the dreams themselves that are responsible for the benefit. Rather, the dreams are a sign that your unconscious brain is busy mulling over your problems.
What Else Can You Learn from Your Dreams?
Professor Stickgold suggested that you likely do not need to remember all of your dreams in order to benefit from them when you awake, however, according to Dr. Peter Reznik, staff member of the Schachter Center for Complementary Medicine and a faculty member of the American Institute of Mental Imagery, learning how to “work” your dreams can provide unique insights into your relationships and the world around us.
He writes that by uncovering the language and symbolism of dreams we can learn about:
Our relationship with the world and ourselves around the time of the dream
The "global" issues (physical and emotional challenges) that we face in our lives
The condition of our body at the time of the dream
Our unconscious beliefs
How to solve our problems
In many ancient societies, and even today in different cultures around the world, dreams are viewed as a window into the spiritual world, one that can offer you guidance in your daily life. How can you determine what your dreams are trying to tell you?
Dr. Reznik recommends “working the dream” by asking yourself the following three questions:
How do I feel upon awakening from this dream? Determining your feelings about the dream will give you a sense of whether or not the issue brought up by the dream is resolved. For example, if you feel puzzled, the dream may be informing you that there are things in your life you are not aware of. If you feel happy or relieved upon awakening, perhaps some issue in your life was resolved and the dream reflects the change.
What was the setting? The setting speaks of where you are in your inner life. If you were traveling, the dream may speak about your journey in life. If you are in a hospital, the dream may be telling you something about being ill, or possibly recovering. If you are in the school, it may be about education, learning lessons in life. If you are in a foreign country, you are in a place that is foreign to you. Ask yourself how you feel about this country, why this particular and not any other country, what is the first thought that comes to you when you think about this country? That will tell you how you feel about being in this new place.
If this dream was a story, what title would I give it? This will reveal the general theme permeating the dream.
Dr. Reznick also suggests paying close attention to the dream's "red flags" …
“There is a reason for every dream you have …” Dr. Reznick explains. “Pay particular attention to red flags, which usually come with a purpose of attracting your attention to the most important aspect of the dream. A red flag means that something in the dream is out of place,” he writes.
“For example, you are your age, an adult, and you find yourself in your elementary school. You feel embarrassed because you are a grown person and have to study with children. This dream may be calling your attention to discomfort about having to learn something that feel you should already know.
Another example: you receive your monthly electric bill that is usually under a hundred dollars and it is $1100. You are shocked and outraged. This dream may be showing that you are overspending your energy without realizing the price that you must pay and also the conflicting feelings you may have about working so hard.”
Even nightmares and bad dreams have the potential to give us useful insights into our lives.
“Nightmares are simply messages from the deepest part of ourselves to our consciousness calling for change. If unheeded, not only may we continue to suffer from the unpleasantness of a "bad" dream, but we run the risk of perpetuating negativity in our waking life,” Reznick says.
Making the Most of Your Dreams …
In order to linger in the REM stage of sleep and experience vivid dreams, you need to be getting sound, high-quality sleep each night.
This requires letting go of stress prior to bedtime -- otherwise, your mind and body have to work overtime to cope with all the stress from your day. You’ll go to bed with your mind and emotions still very active and alert, which is not conducive to sleep.
Falling asleep actually involves a whole different style of functioning than the focused state of attention you have during the day. It requires relaxation, and a kind of "letting go." You need to be able to turn off your mind and "de-focus.” Please make an appointment to discuss.
By getting your mind into a calm, focused state just prior to sleep, you’re priming yourself for an optimal night of dreams. We also highly recommend keeping a notepad at the side of your bed so you can jot down your dreams, or any thoughts they bring up in you, immediately upon waking. You can also jot down your dreams and related thoughts in the middle of the night, should you awaken from a dream prematurely.
If you notice a recurring theme in your dreams, you can actually make adjustments to it and “correct it” while you’re awake. Dr. Reznik explains:
“To make a correction, sit quietly in an upright position, close your eyes, and manually state your intention for the exercise. For example, if in the dream you were captured by enemies, you state: "I am doing this exercise with the intention to find freedom." Then, go back into the dream to the moment of greatest distress and use your will to make a resolution to your liking.”
However, if your dreams seem to be trying to tell you something, be sure to listen. As Dr. Reznik says:
"If the dream clearly indicates that there is a physical problem, the best is to have a physical check up. If the dream shows emotional conflict, the conflict needs to be addressed."
National Sleep Foundation