How to Get the Most out of Dreaming

Research on inspiration from dreams and the Five-Factor Model of personality.

Posted May 16, 2019

Aaron Burden, StockSnapIO, Creative Commons CC0
Source: Aaron Burden, StockSnapIO, Creative Commons CC0

       “Properly speaking, the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.” —Sigmund Freud

       "Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes." —Carl Jung

Dreams . . . lovely, terrifying, wonderful dreams. The sleeping equivalent of the dark night of the soul. While dreams can be totally mundane, quotidian, unremarkable, milquetoast—the familiar repetitive dreams of teeth crumbling, going back to school to re-take a test, being naked in public—some dreams are earth-shattering, heart-rending, gut-wrenching, soul-piercing, life-changing portents from deep within our psyches, sometimes offering flashes of genius, epiphanies about oneself and life, or solutions to knotty and intractable problems.

The famous example of dream epiphanies is the possibly apocryphal story of August Kekulé divining the structure of the hexagonal benzene ring upon recalling a dream of a snake swallowing its own tail. Mary Shelley, who reportedly turned a nightmare into the story of Frankenstein, and Paul McCartney, who dreamed the song "Yesterday," are widely cited illustrations noted by the authors of the study discussed below.

The long and winding road

Since childhood, I have always remembered my very complex, vivid dreams, and they have served me throughout my life as a rich source of self-knowledge, nighttime cinematic entertainment, and often a source of insight. In the past, they had been more frightening, repeating apocalyptic, world-ending events of every stripe—alien invasions, meteor strikes with the tops of buildings floating up to become orbital habitats, earthquakes and forest fires, dark enemies, and the like—although these stopped a few years ago. Recently, in my waking life, I’ve been on a steep learning curve as an enterprise I started with colleagues has been going through a series of rapid shifts which could be taken as either unnerving and potentially catastrophic or par for the course and a good time to up my game. While there had been an uncharacteristically dry spell on the dreaming front for several months, the other night, grappling with these new and unfamiliar challenges, I dreamed a new version of an old dream-friend—being an undergrad in college again.

Unlike the many similar, back-in-college dreams I have had over the years, full of joy and angst, in this dream, I was at a different school than my beloved alma mater. Instead of being a freshman, as typically is the case in these time-warps, I was close to graduation. Unlike the recurring dreams in which I was returning to college to re-do things I’ve always felt I missed out on and re-experiencing the awesome times I had, in this new variation of back-to-school I was in a more prestigious institution; though I went to a well-respected school, it was not an Ivy League school . . . there was a fair amount of ivy, though.

Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [Public domain]
East River Viaduct
Source: Gottscho-Schleisner Collection [Public domain]

We digress. Instead of repeating old, unfinished experiences and feeling anxious about how I could possibly be a freshman again while also doing my regular work as a doctor—who has the time?—I was on an exciting bus ride with a stimulating companion who gave a surprising answer to a question I asked, the details of which I will leave out to avoid public embarrassment. We were going around winding highway roads, which went in loops up and around a big city, looking a bit like an overgrown version of the FDR, with its iconic underpass along the East River. At the end of the dream, the bus driver made a sudden jerk of the wheel, throwing the bus off the edge of the road, across a chasm hundreds of feet deep, sailing smoothly down through the void to land perfectly on a road below us and to the right.

There was no damage to the bus, it was not especially scary, and we kept right on course as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I woke with a heightened sense of mastery and optimism, and a clearer idea of how to move forward in the face of multiple challenges. In this case, the creative spark was for me to make a jump, shifting suddenly in ways which had seemed out of reach only days before. The experience in the dream, I realize as I’m writing now, also reflected a series of experiences in the preceding weeks in which I had felt incredibly angry and frustrated, only to suddenly find that I had “let go” of those feelings and felt calm and ready to move past experiences of hurt and betrayal—a shift extending beyond the workplace and into other parts of life, not that everything is perfect.

The neuroscience of dream learning

While dreams can simply capture what Freud referred to as “day residue,” easy to dismiss, capturing the dregs of suppressed negative feelings or merely repeating the events of the day, dreams are also reflective of the process of learning and growth.

In a 2001 research paper in Neuron, researchers Wilson and Louie at MIT’s Picower Center for Learning and Memory monitored brain activity in the memory center of the brains of rats (the hippocampus) when they were asleep and during a waking task involving running a course for a food reward. They found that the rats appeared to be rehearsing what they had learned during the day, as the hippocampal neurons repeated the same patterns of firing as awake, both at regular speed and also in hyper-lapse, compressing several minutes of behavior into milliseconds of brain activity, over and over and over again. Reminds me of The Matrix, where Neo jacks into the martial arts training simulator and gets years of experience burned into him in minutes: "I know, his neurokinetics are off the chart!"

Demonstrably, though without the hippocampal hot-wiring, in human beings learning takes place during sleep. People learning a new motor sequence—for example, a piano piece—are more efficient learners after a snooze. This learning effect is reflected in measurable increases in connectivity among associated brain networks. That feeling you get when you wake up and things have clicked into place? That's your brain networks re-organizing, man.

To sleep, perchance to dream

So, to cut to the chase, who is more likely to profit creatively from dreams, or find the solutions to elusive problems in the strange, subjective experience of sleeping consciousness? In order to examine these questions, researchers in Germany conducted a survey of over 2,400 participants. They designed the study to look for correlations between demographic characteristics, such as age, education level, and sex, with relevant self-report measures of dreaming and personality.

Participants completed several questionnaires: 1) the Mannheim Dream Questionnaire (MADRE), which has participants rate on a scale how often creativity is sparked by dreams, how often solutions to problems are suggested in dreams, and so on; 2) an assessment of personality according to the Big Five (Five-Factor Model) traits of openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism using the NEO Five-Factor Inventory, a widely used psychological instrument.

They found that, on average, participants reported recalling nearly two dreams per week, with a range up to four per week across the bulk of the group. Dream recall went down with the older age of participants, and there was a tendency for women to report remembering more. Very few people reported getting creative inspiration from dreams more than once a month, with about 5 percent reporting two to three such dreams per month, and less than 3 percent reporting being so visited once a week or more. There was a similar frequency of finding dreams helpful for problem-solving.

Notably, nearly half of participants reported never having a dream with creative ideas or hints for solving problems that spilled over into waking life, though surely their brains were hard at work while they slept, sorting things out in their dreams (whether they remembered them or not) as neuroscience research tells us must be happening.

And what about personality and creative inspiration from dreaming? After controlling for demographic variables, more agreeable and more conscientious participants had fewer creative dreams, though it was overall a mild effect—but more disagreeable, less exacting, and careful participants were more likely to recall dreams sparking original thinking. Extroversion was slightly associated with productive dreams, and openness to experience was more strongly correlated with creative dreaming. However, the main reason more open people get more creative inspiration from dreams is likely not because of the personality trait per se or some special interaction with dream usage, but rather because they have a more receptive attitude.

For problem-solving, as with creative ideas, openness to experience remained a strong factor, extroversion and agreeableness less so. In addition, neuroticism emerged as a significant factor with a moderate effect size. Because people higher in neuroticism tend to ruminate more and to experience higher stress levels and use internalizing defenses, it may be that neurotic people are more likely to push negative feelings into dreams and then think about them a lot upon waking, making it more likely they’ll learn something. One of the many potential advantages of being a bit neurotic.

How to work with dreams

Presumably, if one is raised in a culture which emphasizes the recall and use of dreams, or has experienced psychotherapy or some other form of self-inquiry in which dreams play a leading role, the tendency to learn from and be inspired by dreams is deliberately practiced, a skill at which one may learn to excel. Such practice also increases openness to dreams, helping to overcome a fear of awareness of one's dreams. There are even groups which analyze dreams together, such as the one I’ve been in for over a decade run by the eminent psychologist, psychoanalyst, author, and dreamer Mark J. Blechner, who coined the word for dream phobia, “oneirophobia," in his book The Dream Frontier.

At the risk of being specious

If one is open-minded, on the lookout for new things, extroverted, somewhat disagreeable, and prone to sloppiness, with a tendency to worry and overthink things a bit too much, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that such an individual would be more likely to dig their own dreams, have a rich and involved dream life, and get a lot of inspiration for and hints about waking life from a richer and more active dream life. They may not always sleep as soundly and deeply as desired, and the barrier between sleep and waking mind may be thinner—but with the possible exception of traumatic re-experiencing in the form of nightmares, the relationship between waking-me and dreaming-me is rich and rewarding, a lifelong font from which to slake thirst.

On the other hand, if one is more calm, cool, and collected, generally likes things as they are, isn't looking for new experiences or ideas, tends to be agreeable and orderly, and is perhaps not as outgoing, that person may be less likely to remember and be inspired by dreams. Dreams may hold little interest, and sleep may simply be a part of the daily maintenance routine, time to let the body rest and recuperate, let the brain do its thing, a generally uneventful experience. One twist the study authors note is that those who remember dreams and are conscientious are more likely to sift through them in detail, increasing the chances that they will find something which jumps out at them.

These caricatures bring two extremes of a dreamer into relief. While nearly 50 percent of people report never consciously being aware of gleaning creative ideas or solutions to problems from their sleep (in spite of surely consolidating learning while asleep), the majority of people at least once a month get actionable information from reflecting upon the memory of nighttime brain activity. For someone curious about dreams and their own dreaming, the advice is to find a way to practice on one’s own and/or with the help of another person.

Working with one’s own dreams over time sets in motion a distinct process, as waking dreamwork influences dreaming, and discussion with others creates an incentive to recall more dreams, and so on. It can take up time and require emotional work, be pleasurable, onanistic, disturbing at times, but very rewarding and often fruitful—which is what led Freud to call dreams the “royal road to the unconscious.”