Why it's good to be a dreamer: Solutions often come during sleep

Dreams spark creativity.
Dreams spark creativity. Ellen Simonson / St. Paul Pioneer Press

WASHINGTON — A California dream researcher has proven something that wouldn't surprise Mozart or Keith Richards. It's that dreaming is a great way to solve creative problems.

Dr. Sara Mednick, a sleep psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, found that subjects who, between morning and afternoon word-game sessions, took a nap that included a period of lively dreaming called REM sleep, improved their later scores by 40 percent.

Scores for those who merely rested or whose naps included no REM sleep didn't budge, Mednick reports in Monday's online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. REM sleep is the most conked-out stage of slumber, named after the rapid eye movement that characterizes it.

The idea that dreams have creative utility isn't new. Richards, for one, has said that he dreamed the riff that underlies the Rolling Stones song "Satisfaction," and Mozart claimed some of his music came to him in dreams. But Mednick's work sheds new light on the process.

In her experiment, REM sleepers scored higher in the afternoon mainly because they, at some level, recognized what the others didn't: that half the words that that were the correct answers to the morning's puzzles were also correct answers to the afternoon's.

"REM sleep allowed subjects to access and utilize for creative problem solving supposedly irrelevant information," Mednick said in an e-mail. She theorizes that without thinking about it, REM sleepers created flexible new associations with the morning's winning words while they were sleeping that made it easier to call up those words in the afternoon.

Creative problem-solving that entails dreams, Mednick continued, typically begins with a period of unsuccessful effort. That's followed by a decision to set the problem aside, then a lull in which the thinker does no conscious work to find a solution. Finally, the fresh solution enters consciousness in a dream and is recognized upon awakening.

And why does the magic moment tend to occur during REM or rapid-eye-movement sleep, as Mednick's experiment suggests? She theorizes that it's a time when the brain's neocortex, the part of its gray matter associated with thinking, is free to integrate fresh information and malleable ideas and memories into a new synthesis: a eureka moment.

The process works especially well for musicians, scientists and artists whose challenges are analogous to the neocortex's, Mednick said. That is, to make new connections among bits and pieces of familiar elements.

To test her findings, Mednick said, she recently applied the method to a hobby: songwriting.

She went to sleep, Mednick said, thinking of the word "pyrite," as in "iron pyrite," also known as fool's gold, hoping to dream up a song of thwarted love.

She woke up, Mednick said, with the lyrics to "Love Like Pyrite" pouring out of her head, ready for her garage band to attack.


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