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On dream incubation and lucid dreaming

Recently, the following message with questions about dream incubation and lucid dreaming has been addressed to Piotr Woźniak:

What is your position on dream incubation and lucid dreaming? I read about the recommendation to focus intensely on the problem before sleep to initiate a dream. Should I really sleep with a piece of paper by my side? You wrote an "encyclopedia of sleep" half of which seems to be dedicated to learning and creativity. It all sounds nice in theory. My question is a personal one though. Do you actually use any of those theories by yourself? How about dream incubation or lucid dreaming for enhanced creativity? How effective do you think those techniques are?

In hope of making you read to the end of this text, I will provocatively say: Yes, I do use dream incubation to boost creativity. However, I need to add that if someone suggests dream incubation to you, look for the agenda. The scary truth is that dream incubation or lucid dreaming have attracted a whole crowd of loony characters that make the field swell with personal theories, anecdotes, pseudoscience and plain falsehoods.

At the root of the entire confusion lies the fact that dreams are a mere side effect of an essential neural process that underwrites the power of human intelligence and creativity.

Metaphorically speaking, the brain is undergoing a sort of restructuring in the night that you might compare to disk defragmentation in your computer. If someone gave you a magnifying glass that would let you see an information channel inside a processor handling disk defragmentation, you might see a kaleidoscope of varied information rushing through. This could be pretty interesting: sounds, images, e-mail, portions of web pages, etc. It might be as disorganized as a dream often is. However, this creative dreamlike inspiration would not be the key to the value of sleep. The defragmentation process itself is!

You can often hear that dreams help you remove a block on creativity or employ the subconscious processes. Both notions are misleading. Dreams do not unblock creativity. Sleep turns the brain into a memory optimizing machine that makes it easy to make new associations. Some of those associations are ready for you when you wake up. Some will be born as soon as you start thinking about the problem. Two things form the block on creativity: (1) garbage information and (2) network fatigue. Both are remedied by sleep. Whatever happens in sleep, should not be called a subconscious process. The term should be reserved for processes that occur in conscious brain without our participation, or awareness. Instead, sleep is rather an off-conscious process. The circuits involved in forming a conscious mind are probably involved in trying to make sense of the off-conscious output: hence the bizarre nature of dreams, a hypothesis says.

If you wake up in the middle of the night to catch a dream to help you solve a problem, you are probably doing your brain and the problem a dis-service. Get your sleep right and this will maximize your chances. All you can catch in the night is a piece of a kaleidoscopic play of information. It may be totally irrelevant to the problem you are trying to solve. If you use alarm clock or try to induce lucid dreaming, you may be just killing the goose that lays the golden egg. If you resort to pharmacology, you are additionally asking for long-term negative health effects.

It is true that the arrival of conscious mind quickly erases traces of the dream from your memory. Trying to write it down as soon as possible is the right method to catch a dream. However, this is useful only to satisfy your own curiosity. This only helps you document what you dream about. It is less likely to inspire a breakthrough idea. Instead, you might just stay in bed for a while and focus intently on the problem you are trying to solve. These morning moments are the best time for an enlightened idea. It does not need to be related to the dream.

This is why instead of dream incubation before sleep, you should rather focus on idea incubation in the morning.

As for the personal part, I hear Ray Kurzwail practices dream incubation. Perhaps he is a better person to ask. For me, the time before sleep should definitely be devoted to clearing up your mind from any active processes. This is a personal thing. I am an extreme owl. If I do not make sure my day lasts exactly 18.6 hours, I might run a risk of sleep phased delays (if I go to sleep late), lower productivity (if my night gets shortened as a result), or insomnia (if I go to sleep too early). If I practiced dream incubation, my short 5.4 hour night would only get shorter. Extreme owls are often extreme because of their "skill" of exciting the brain with an idea -- any idea. Getting passionate is great for creative work, but is a scourge if you are about to go to sleep. This is why, instead of dream incubation, I practice extreme mind clearing. I turn on boring news before sleep on a 20-minute timer (e.g. county by county stats in New Hampshire primaries :) ). Then I make sure that I try to listen. This helps me zonk out in an average of 3 to 4 minutes. This might sound great, but there is a great religious effort in terms of timing and routines to make that possible. Dream incubation would shake it up.

If you work the whole day on a problem, your brain is already primed well enough for memory optimization in sleep. I bet those last minutes before sleep will not be too productive as there is a degree of amnesia that kicks in right before sleep. Check other sources. Some experts disagree. On the other hand, there is no better creative tool than a morning brain. Even in a hazy lazy state, you can come up with the breakthrough you are seeking. Then it is a good practice to put that good idea down on paper. A cup of coffee may change the status of your mind and produce a creative storm that may make it hard to restore all morning ideas. That piece of paper with notes may become precious then.

Last but not least, note that I am not an artist. I am more of a cold scientist type. I realize that dreams might be of great artistic inspiration and some of what I write may not apply to an artist. Actually, I recall writing a short thriller novel in my teen years upon waking up from a dream that provided the skeleton of a plot. I was not incubating, I was not trying to solve a problem. I just had a scary dream and built upon it while lazing in bed in darkness in a very early morning.

To sum it up, we all do use a sort of dream incubation. We all sleep and become smarter and more creative as a result. Perhaps the only exception are those people who destroy the precious process of sleep with the prime modern torture tool: the alarm clock.

Piotr Woźniak