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Synopsis: The dreaming brain is nearly as active as it is when we are awake. Experts discuss ways to shape dreams to help solve problems.

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  • Dr. Deirdre Barrett, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Harvard Medical School and author, The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving—And How You Can Too

Link for more information:

16-36 Lucid Dreams

Benson: We spend a third of our lives asleep. By the time we reach the age of 75, we’ve spent 25 of those years sleeping. While sleep is necessary to recharge our bodies after a long day, it’s hard to resist thinking about all the time we’ve lost–the extra hours we could have spent working, or with family and friends. But what if there was a way to ensure we put that time to good use? Science suggests there may be a way to extend our waking day into sleep – through lucid dreaming.

Barrett: It’s just a very unique state of consciousness to be seeing a completely hallucinatory world around you and yet know that your mind is creating this rather than that this is physical reality there.

Benson: That’s Deirdre Barrett, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Committee of Sleep: How artists, scientists, and athletes use their dreams for creative problem solving – and how you can too.

Barrett: If you want to change nightmares or if you want to have a problem-solving dream about a particular topic, people often think, ‘Oh well, if I learn to become lucid, then as soon as I’m lucid, I can ask dream characters the answer to this or I can then know that I can change the dream.’

Benson: Barrett defines a lucid dream as a state in which you know you’re dreaming while it’s happening. In lucid dreams, the sleeper is often able to manipulate the dream’s narrative to include anything they can possibly imagine. While the idea may seem simple, especially considering how ridiculous dreams can seem once we wake up, it’s still an elusive concept to many people. Barrett says this is due to what is – and isn’t – active in the dreaming brain.

Barrett: Rapid eye movement sleep is when most dreams occur, but there are particular areas that are much more or much less active. The prefrontal cortex right behind your forehead is much less active and that’s where we reflect on things, that’s the area that would notice if something was odd or didn’t make sense or questions logic kinds of things, and that is greatly damped down. So that is probably why in most dreams, really bizarre things can happen and we really don’t question why.

Benson: Because of their visual nature, “problem solving” lucid dreams tend to be most effective for artists, architects, and other people who work primarily with imagery.

Barrett: I find in studies of problem-solving dreams that the two areas that they seem the most helpful with are anything where visual imagery helps. Scientists of any persuasion could occasionally say yes, they had a major breakthrough in a dream, but the ones that are the likeliest to say it were the ones who were working in some kind of visual-spatial realm, chemists where seeing molecules was important or mathematicians doing much more geometric things.

Benson: Despite this, Barrett says anyone can make use of problem solving dreams because they provide a unique perspective and allow for unconventional thinking. 

Barrett: The other cluster seemed to be around times where the person was stuck on a problem because the conventional wisdom was wrong, like everybody in their field would know that you were supposed to approach the problem in this particular way and yet they just couldn’t solve in because it turned out that the answer lay in some other direction than any of the conventional wisdom would say. And in that case, I think instead of one brain area being more active, it’s a matter of that prefrontal area behind our forehead being less active. That’s kind of where we censor things.

Benson: Dreaming is a proven creative technique. Paul McCartney composed music and Einstein formulated his theory of relativity thanks to insight from dreams. But how can you use dreams to your advantage? To start, Barrett recommends focusing on simply influencing the content of your dreams rather than becoming completely lucid.

Barrett: Bedtime dream incubation, which is very similar regardless of what purpose, whether you’re trying to dream on a particular topic or getting yourself to remember more dreams or just influence your dreams in any way, if kind of last thing before you’re falling asleep, you kind of make the request of, you know, ‘I want to dream on this topic or problem or other things,’ and then because dreams are so visual, if you can think of a visual image to go with the request because visual stuff gets through to our dreaming mind better. And you do that right before you’re falling asleep and that’s the most effective way of trying to influence your dreams in general.

Benson: But training to achieve full lucidity takes a few extra steps.

Barrett: Much more specific to lucidity, what are usually called daytime reality checks, where basically you ask yourself if you are awake. And the idea is that if you make a habit of anything, some new habit you’re learning, very, very often shows up in your dreams. You both just ask the general question, just open-endedly, ‘Am I awake? Is there anything going on around me that’s implausible for waking life?’ And just ask it as a general question but then also that you have some specific one or two things that you can check that are things that work differently in your dreams or don’t work in your dreams sometimes, compared to waking life.

Benson: These daytime checks can include reading a book, switching on and off a light switch, or looking at a clock. If any of these fail to behave the way you expect them to in real life, chances are you’re in a dream.

Barrett: If you do it awake enough, eventually you will be dreaming and sort of think it’s time to do your reality check. Sure, of course, that you’re awake as you usually are as you do the test and then the reading won’t work or the light switch won’t work.

Benson: However, even if you achieve lucidity there’s still no guarantee you’ll remember your dream the next morning. To ensure your dream training doesn’t go to waste, Barrett provides a simple solution – get more sleep.

Barrett: If you sleep four hours a night, you’re way less likely to remember dreams than if you sleep eight hours a night. We dream repeatedly through the night on about a 90-minute cycle, but the first dream is very short and the next dream is somewhat longer and it’s starting every 90 minutes but it’s lasting longer each time. And so if you sleep four hours instead of eight, you’re not getting half your dream time, you’re getting like, 20-25% of your dream time.

Benson: The limitless landscape of a lucid dream provides more than just access to ideas normally blocked off by the conscious mind. Barrett says lucid dreams can also help the dreamer learn more about who they are.

Barrett: People feel like they learn something about themselves just from watching what their dreaming mind is doing while knowing that it’s a dream. But then people find lots of experiments you can do with lucid dreaming to be interesting. Interview dream characters about what part of your self they are, go meet your younger self, go meet your future self. There are just all sorts of psychologically interesting growthful things you can do with the state.

Benson: Attaining lucidity, Barrett says, is not an easy task. It’s a process that requires practice, concentration, and commitment. As a result, it’s a skill that many covet and few conquer. But once it’s achieved, it can unlock a universe of uncharted potential.

Our writer-producer this week is Michael Wu.

Our production director is Sean Waldron.

I’m Nancy Benson.


One thought on “16-36 Segment 2: Lucid Dreams

  1. I am an artist I have used these methods for a lifetime I have been able to direct the talent of art into every field… I have been listening to your program for over 5 years… because of grand mal seizures over 25 years ago scans showed me my brain is all lit up all the time… My capability of falling asleep is from 99 to 97 sometimes I’ll hit in 94… I am very impressed with everything I’ve heard…


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