Dream Incubation: Problem-Solving In Your Sleep

Dreams are fascinating. We create elaborate narratives in our mind then wake up trying to figure out just how they came to be: “What was I doing there? ” “I haven’t spoken to x in ages, why were they in my dream?” “I wonder what dreaming about x says about me.” Sigmund Freud famously called dreams the “Royal Road” to the unconscious, and people frequently interpret their dreams to gain deeper insights about themselves and their lives.

Dreams can be a way to get unstuck from our problems. You’ve heard about “sleeping on it “? That’s a smart way to conjure up answers to life’s conundrums. We typically spend our awake time unsure which choice is best; we over-plan, overthink, and bombard ourselves with external information. This leaves us bouncing around from path to path. Alternatively, slowing down, looking internally, and directing our dreams can provide a clearer and calmer path.

This is where “dream incubation” comes in: the technique of planting a seed for a certain topic to occur in your dreams thus directing your unconscious to find a solution.

What is dream incubation?

Dream incubation is a modern manifestation of an ancient tradition. In Ancient Egyptian spiritual practices dreams were regarded highly, and it was believed you could direct them to invoke the wisdom of different Gods. Canadian indigenous communities slept with their heads in the direction of the rising sun, believing that the images they received in their dreams came to them along the path of the sun.  Today dream incubation techniques are used in specialist settings such as hypnotherapy and treatment for PTSD-related nightmares.  But it is something anyone can do; you may have even practiced it without knowing!

Dream incubation is simply about directing the course of your dreams. And, by aiming for a specific dream topic to occur, you might unlock the answer to a question your conscious brain couldn’t access. This is usually an open-ended question about an area you feel you need more guidance and clarity in.

How does it work?

You may have heard of REM sleep: this is the stage in our sleep cycle where dreams usually occur. But before you get there, there are three non-REM stages. Stage one is the “dozing off” stage. At stage two, body and brain activity slows down. Stage three is known as deep sleep and is the critical stage for quality rest and recovery. And then you reach REM, where brain activity picks up again.

Dream incubation aims to put your dream topic in mind as you drift off, but whilst your senses are still engaged. And so, as brain activity picks up again, your dreams are more likely to draw on you’re the last mental image you planted.

In 1993 psychologist Deidre Barrett investigated dream incubation in a study at Harvard business school. She asked students to choose a problem to focus on before they drifted off to sleep and to do this every night for a week. Participant’s pre-sleep suggestions ranged from solving computer problems to creating characters and plots for a novel. Around half of the participants said that they had had a dream related to their question, and most of these felt that they found the answer in their dreams.

As dream incubation has been explored and expanded on, more pre-sleep techniques have been developed which may improve its effectiveness. Guiding thoughts to a specific topic and letting your mind dwell there can be used to solve personal dilemmas.

How do I do it?

The basic three steps of dream incubation are:

  1. Ask an open-ended question prior to going to sleep.
  2. Sleep and dream.
  3. Wake and process the imagery (repeat for seven consecutive nights)

But there are different things you can do to help conjure a mental image of what you want to dream about.

Outside words become mental images, so writing down your question and reading over it before you go to sleep every night can be useful. If you respond to sounds more, record yourself and play the audio as you drift off. This can also be helpful as you can play the prompt multiple times as you enter a deeper stage of sleep. If you need a visual prompt, assemble things on your bedside table that makes an image of your question. For example, if you have writer’s block you could get a book or notepad. Or you might use a picture, scent, or texture that reminds you of something or someone.

To eliminate distractions, relaxation techniques can be used. Relax the mind by doing a body scan, breathing exercise, or meditation. Once the mind is rid of its obstacles, bring the question to mind with a clearer focus.

And when you get the dilemma off your chest and unwind before you go to bed, you have a better chance of having a good quality deep sleep no matter how insightful your dreams are.

Famous examples

Many great thinkers and creatives have used pre-sleep suggestions to find answers, creativity, and discoveries in their dreams. For example, Vincent Van Gogh said “I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.” Similarly, Salvador Dali described his work as “hand-painted dream photographs.” As well as artists, writers such as Mary Shelley, Slyvia Plath, and Edgar Allen Poe have drawn on their dreams in their work. In the realm of music, Billy Joel and Paul McCartney found inspiration from their dreams. And for Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, the dream planted the solution he had been looking for.

If it’s worked for these legends, then why not give dream incubation a go?

-Heather Grant

Photo: Bigstock

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