Dreamwork and Creativity

Pubblished by Patrick McNamara on Dream Psychology Dream Research Dreams
October 11, 2013

Hi Dreamboarders,
here some curiosities and observations on the relation between dreams and creativitiy.

The question is: can working with dreams enhance creativity? We do not yet know for sure but all the available evidence suggests that the answer will be yes once all the evidence is in.

Evidence for a dream creativity link

There are many anecdotal reports of creative inspiration deriving from dreams. We all know the examples of Kekule’s ascription of his discovery of the structure of the benzene ring from a dream. Robert Louis Stevenson apparently derived his ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ stories from a dream. Stephen King apparently drew inspiration for the story of the ‘Shining’ in part, from a nightmare and Ingmar Bergmann derived his ‘Wild Strawberries’ from some of his dream images. Similar stories can be culled from the testimonies of numerous artists working in virtually all domains from paintings (e.g. Slavador Dali) to music (e,g. the Beatles’ “yesterday” and several others) (Stickgold and Walker, 2004).

These anecdotal reports of a link between dreams and creativity, furthermore, can now be supplemented with experimental data. Schredl (2000) noted that 28% of student volunteers reported creative inspirations from dreams at least twice a year. That estimate of dream-induced creativity however must surely be too low. Semantic priming techniques have revealed that we are faster in accessing disparate associations after a bout of REM sleep than we are in accessing strong associations. Something about REM enhances our abilities to access more distant semantic associations to a given stimulus. For example, after REM sleep we are better at making associations between animals not typically associated such as dog-elephant than we are in making more typical associations such as dog-cat (Stickgold et al., 1999). That enhanced ability to cognitively reach for the more distant association is fundamental to thinking outside the box and arriving at novel insights. Indeed, it seems clear now that after a good night’s dream-rich sleep we have improved ability to solve anagram problems, or to suddenly “see” the solution to a difficult problem that eluded us before we engaged in the sleep (Walker et al., 2009). The available data suggests that the kind of sleep we need to enhance our creative abilities is dream-rich, REM sleep. For example, subjects who had engaged in REM sleep during a daytime nap did better on a remote associates task (RAT) than those who had engaged in NREM during the nap or those subjects who did not sleep at all during the nap period (Cai et al., 2009).

Evidence against the dream-creativity link

Consider that despite all the anecdotal reports concerning the instances of creativity ascribed by creators to their dreams (e.g. the song ‘Yesterday’ arriving fully formed to Paul McCartney in a dream), there are no reports of loss of creativity in individuals who do not dream frequently or individuals with suppressed REM sleep and dream recall due to ingestion of anti-depressant medications that suppress core aspects of REM. If dreaming and its associated REM sleep biology truly enhanced creativity one would suppose that suppression of dreaming and REM would also suppress creativity. Does it? We do not know. I know of no studies of creativity in individuals with clearly documented suppression of REM or in individuals who do not frequently recall their dreams. Even if such studies were carried out and we found no loss of creativity in individuals on anti-depressants that suppress REM sleep would that mean that REM sleep and dreaming had nothing to do with creativity? Clearly not. Note that if we found that individuals on antidepressants had reduced creativity we would need to know their baseline creativity in order to estimate the extent to which creativity was reduced.

Dreamboard users can help scientists solve the problem of the dream-creativity link by simply adding some background material on themselves. Do they have any health conditions? Are they taking medications and if so list them and their dosages. What kind of work do they do-simply name your work title. These simple pieces of information would give us the data we need to investigate associations of dream content to measures of creativity while holding constant background subject – specific information such as health and medication regimens.

Dreamboard users can also use their dreams to enhance their daily creativity. As you build your dreamboard catalog of dreams, you can look over your evaluations of past dreams in terms of emotional tone, colors, characters, and other content indices and then note associations between any of these content indices and your daily creativity levels. You may notice, for example, that as your dreams become more turbulent, emotional, red and complex so too does your daily creative output. Note that you can tell that the enhanced creative output is actually due to the changing dream content because that dream content does not always reflect your daytime mood or your daytime waking activities. Your dreams may become turbulent even though your daily life does not seem so.

So we urge you to begin experimenting with your dreams as a tool to enhance your daily creativity. Please let us know how you fare in your explorations!


Patrick McNamara, PhD
Chief Scientific Advisor, Dreamboard Inc.



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