Are Your Dreams Making You Smarter?

What if every time you went to sleep, tiny elves ran around your brain, organizing the clutter, putting names, faces, relationships, and conversations in the right places, and polishing up the facts you learned during the day? And what if, after these elves were done, you woke up much more likely to retain all the information you’d accumulated during your waking hours?

The reality isn’t all that far off. Researchers now believe that if you dream about what you’ve learned during your waking hours, you’re far more likely to retain that information. In a recent study, psychiatrist Sara Mednick found that people who took naps and went into deep REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when dreams are most vivid, performed better on creativity-oriented work problems; it improved their ability to see connections among unrelated things.

Harvard psychiatrist Daniel Schacter believes that when memory is boosted by deep sleep, it has the additional benefit of helping you imagine and plan for the future. “When you imagine future events, you’re recombining aspects of experiences that have actually occurred,” he said in an interview with National Geographic News.

It’s been widely accepted that dreaming plays an important role in helping us understand our world, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that it actually helps shape and retain what we’re learning as well. In a study in the Sleep Disorders Unit at Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, researchers taught a series of dance moves to patients with conditions like sleepwalking. They then videotaped the subjects and found, to their amazement, that the subjects performed the dance moves while asleep. “It was,” wrote lead author Delphine Oudiette, “the first direct and unambiguous demonstration of overt behavioral replay of a recently learned skill during human sleep.”

In fact, dreaming about something you’ve just learned is a sign that the knowledge has been processed by the supercomputer that is your brain. In a study published in Current Biology, researchers at Harvard Medical School found that college students who dreamed about a computer-maze task they’d learned indeed showed a tenfold improvement in their ability to navigate the maze compared to participants who didn’t dream about the task.

Dreams, Not Sleep

The benefits of sleep are well documented. Being well rested ensures better creative thinking. If you’ve had the full eight hours, you’re more likely to be able to solve problems, keep your cool, and come up with innovative ideas. Your memory and retention are far better than those of people who try to pull all-nighters. It’s why students who cram throughout the night are likely to have lower performances than those who get a good night’s sleep before an exam. In fact, studies show that students who get enough sleep are better at forming connections, seeing the big picture and noticing flaws, things that are much needed in today’s economy.

The benefits of sleep have been well outlined, but until now we thought that it was rest provided by sleep that was responsible for all of the creativity and memory benefits we reap in the morning. But perhaps we’ve been going about this all wrong. What if all the benefits that scientists attribute to our resting state are actually derived because our brain isn’t resting but is instead working through all of the material it’s accumulated during the day by creating dreams?

What Are Dreams, Anyway?

What exactly happens inside the brain when you’re dreaming? Turns out no one knows. There are different theories; some suggest that dreams could be expressing repressed childhood longings, sorting through the garbage of your day-to-day life, while others suggest that they can be random brain impulses that mean nothing.

In 1973, Harvard psychiatrists Allan Hobson and Robert McCarley came up with the random-brain-impulse theory called the “activation-synthesis” hypothesis. It suggests that the brain wants to make sense of what it has seen and experienced throughout the day, and so, when you’re sleeping, it digs into that vat of information and starts processing it. Hobson and McCarley believed that dreams are simply images that are leftover from all that brainwork.

But not everyone agrees. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that specifically counters Hobson and McCarley’s theory and sets out to prove that your brain actually actively works through problems, pulling out new insights and solutions from the far reaches of your mind. It explains why many people who hear tapes while they drift off to sleep, even though they’re not actively listening, still find that the information gets into their minds.

“Dreaming is a thinking process,” says Lauri Quinn Loewenberg, an author and dream expert. “Your dreams are a continuation of your thoughts from the previous day, but, since our brains work differently during REM, we are essentially thinking in a different language than we do while awake. We are thinking in a language of symbols and metaphors rather than in words. Remembering, paying attention to and working with our dreams can also help us with our creative ideas. For example, James Cameron uses his dreams for ideas for his movies. He built the story of Terminator around an image from a dream he had where he watched a skeletal robot emerge from flames. The land of Pandora in Avatar is from one of his dreams.”

Lucid Dreaming

If dreaming about our lives and work can make us more creative and help us better remember things, then it only stands to reason that we’d like a bit of control over what we actually get to see in our dreams. That’s where the concept of lucid dreaming comes in.

Lucid dreaming is defined as being in a dream state but remaining conscious of it at the same time; you know it’s a dream, you know you’re in it, and you can control what you do. Although many people report having had lucid dreams at least once or twice in their lives, it’s not a state that’s easily reachable. Also, finding the control to shape the dream while in it is harder still, though not impossible.

Lucid dreaming happens during REM sleep, and studies have shown that the activation patterns in the brain during REM are similar to those of wake consciousness and self-awareness. Research shows that when lucid dreamers have been asked to perform certain movements, such as clenching their fists, they’ve found electromyographic activity in the corresponding body parts.

“Most people just let their dreams flow naturally,” says Neven Gibbs, a writer and entertainer who uses dreams in his own creative process. “Sometimes the brain analyzes known past data and presents a precognitive probability commonly considered a clairvoyant dream. This mass of fat — brain cells and neurons — is a fascinating biological marvel capable of so much when actually in use. Of course, one has to take it out of neutral and engage the gears, fire up the boilers and point the thing up the river of thought. Controlling dreams takes effort and practice. There are plenty of examples of brilliant minds that use dreams when awake and asleep. Presidents, scientists and businessmen, when faced with a problem or seeking an idea, took a nap.”

New research is focusing on whether one can master a sport or improve musical abilities by practicing during sleep. It may sound like science fiction, but scientists don’t think it’s as far fetched as it sounds. In a study published in the journal The Sport Psychologist, University of Bern psychologist Daniel Erlacher asked participants to dream about tossing coins into a cup. Those who dreamed about engaging in the task successfully showed a marked improvement in their real-life coin tossing as well.

So what should you do if you’re struggling with a problem at work, can’t find enough time to practice those salsa moves, or are desperate to beat your partner at tennis? Sleep on it, and dream about it.

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