Dreams are a natural expression of a creative force. Your subconscious mind creates worlds within worlds, characters with many faces, scenarios from the absurd to the revelatory, moments relived or imagined, combined in a momentary hallucination, all while your head rests on the pillow. Everything that happens in a dream comes from you: your mind is the scriptwriter, the cinematographer, the director, and the cast.
Creativity in dreams is effortless, it happens all by itself. Conscious creativity is effortlessness, too. Enhancing creativity is down to setting the right environment for creativity’s spontaneous gifts to emerge, for dreams to enter the waking world. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that a recent study in the Nature of Science and Sleep discovered a direct correlation between dream recall frequency and levels of creativity. People who were better able to recall dreams were more creative in waking life.
That could be due to an overlap of brain regions involved in both dreams and creativity. According to the study, creative thinking and dreams belong to the same “family of spontaneous-thought processes” which supports evidence from previous studies linking dream recall and problem-solving. In the words of Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barret, “dreaming is essentially our brain thinking in another neurophysiologic state – and therefore it is likely to solve some problems on which our waking minds have become stuck.”
This is a chicken or egg scenario. Do creative people remember dreams more vividly? Or does recalling a dream make someone more creative? The majority of us have many dreams, we’re just not so skilled at remembering them. Fortunately, there are tips to improve dream recall frequency, and boost your creativity in the process.
The Nature of Dreams
My relationship with creativity is one of awe and fascination. Although I’ve always been fairly creative, a few years ago I had a creative awakening that activated deeper levels of inspiration. Almost overnight, ideas started to spring from places that seemed vaguely familiar, yet otherworldly, as if I’d connected to an energy outside of myself. Interestingly, while researching and writing this article, I realized that this energy erupted in parallel to an increase in intense and vivid dreams.
The only way I can describe this was as if that creative force had found a gateway through me, with greater levels of access, in a way that displaced a lot of old thinking patterns.
For example, while previously I’d spent a large percentage of time ruminating over anxious thoughts, such as replaying social interactions or fears of the future, my inner dialogue was replaced by article ideas related to self-development and spirituality, or general insights about myself and the wider world.
I share this as a personal description of the link between the dream world, and the waking world, as potential vessels for creativity. Many monumental works of art, engineering, or scientific breakthroughs have come from dreams. It makes sense, then, that the ability to recall dreams can act like tapping into a stream of insight within, and that the higher the frequency of recall, the more likely you are to get creative breakthroughs.
Unlocking the Treasures of the Dreamworld
Descartes reported that dreams he had revealed to him a new nature of philosophy that led to the modern-day scientific method. Nobel prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr saw the structure of an atom presented to him during a dream. Einstein’s theory of relativity, Larry Page’s idea for Google, and countless works of art, poetry, and fiction have been inspired by the dream world.
In the recent study, the authors concluded by suggesting further study to see if “dream recall frequency enhancement methods could potentially become a creativity-enhancement method.” Improving dream recall might not lead you to create a new philosophy of science, win a Nobel Prize, or produce a movie like Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Sure, it’s possible. But more practically, dream recall allows you to improve problem-solving and creative ideas in your day-to-day life.
Many people seem to accept their ability to recall dreams as random. But multiple studies have found a number of different techniques to boost their frequency. Years ago, I stumbled across a popular technique of asking your subconscious a question before bed, only to wake up and find the answer. The subconscious mind works on problems in the background, and becoming more purposeful alone can improve your dream recollection.
Dream research has discovered a number of scientifically-tested exercises, including keeping a dream diary, changing your attitude towards dreams, avoiding substances such as alcohol and THC, and sleeping between 7-9 hours in order to enter REM sleep, the state most associated with dreams.
Starting with a positive attitude
Many of the mysteries of the dream world are outside of our conscious understanding. Setting the intention to boost dream recall is a powerful starting point. In addition, multiple studies have explored attitudes towards dreams. Studies have found that beliefs such as ‘I think that dreaming is, in general, a very interesting phenomenon’ has a much higher chance of boosting dream recall than the belief such as ‘dreams are boring.’ In other words, positive attitudes lead to higher recall.
I wonder if the conventional way dreams are explained goes some way to shaping a vague disinterest. Growing up, I learned that dreams are the after-effects of the day, a way for the brain to process experiences in complete randomness, with no meaning. Following a number of mind-blowing dreams, full of vivid imagery and strong emotion, I dug deeper. I came across Carl Jung’s approach to dreams as significant forms of communication with the self — far from random — which inspired me to continue building a relationship with those worlds.
Ask yourself: what is my attitude towards dreams? Do I have to let go of my preconceived worldview in order to develop a renewed sense of curiosity to the value, and hidden insight, into dreams? Have I dismissed dreams as random, overlooking their potential significance in guiding my life direction and solving problems?
Using a dream diary
Timing is essential when it comes to dream recollection. Scientists have a term — contentless dreams — to describe moments upon waking, when you have a vague memory of having dreamed, without any content coming to mind. There’s still speculation as to why this is the case, although some suspect that it’s due to how quickly dreams erase from memory, in order to create space for the day ahead. This is what psychologist David Cohen calls the salience-interference hypothesis.
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Getting a dream diary is a huge support in recollection. Not only to write down dreams as you remember them, but to leave it by the side of your bed for the times when you wake up, capturing the essence of the dream before it disappears. The more you use this technique, the more frequently you’ll be able to recall dreams, outsourcing them to a journal rather than attempting to hold onto them with the mind.
An additional step is, of course, to remember to note dreams as you have them. You might want to get some form of anchor, something that will nudge you to record your dreams, such as a small object or post-it note by your bed.
Maximize your time spent in REM sleep
There are four stages of sleep: awake, light, deep, and REM. The last type, REM, is most strongly associated with dreaming. It stands to reason, then, that in order to improve your ability to recall dreams, you want to enhance your time spent in REM sleep. One way to do this is to get adequate sleep, between 7-9 hours each night, the other is to avoid substances that disrupt REM sleep, mainly alcohol and THC.
Other ways to improve REM sleep include having a regular sleep schedule, making sure you have an evening routine that relaxes you (avoiding screens, etc), creating the right environment for sleep (a cool room, not too many distractions, quiet), exercising throughout the day, and avoiding stimulants later in the day, such as caffeine.
Dreams, when seen as random and insubstantial, become missed opportunities for higher levels of creative living. I can vouch for the power of dreams in improving creativity and even supporting spiritual growth. There’s an entire dimension, waiting for you, each and every night. Remember, the source of dreams is a form of higher intelligence, the part of you that solves problems effortlessly, the part of you that knows the answer to the questions you ask, as soon as you ask them.
Creativity, problem-solving, personal insights or epiphanies, are all forms of dialogue, between the conscious mind and the unconscious, a form of communication. What if your dreams could become your muse, your coach, your spiritual guide? All of this potential is waiting for you, and it begins with an intention to remember the dream once you wake up.
So wake up, remember, create.