On a midsummer night on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland, a young, 18-year old girl slept fitfully and dreamt of monsters:
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”
The young girl was Mary Shelley, and the subject of her dream – Frankenstein and his monster. Shelley had spent that evening talking about ghost stories, the principles of life, and ‘re-animation’ with the poets Percy Bysshe Shelley (who she would later marry) and Lord Byron. Somehow those thoughts coalesced in her mind to form Frankenstein’s monster. The next day she started work on her book Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, which became the template for gothic horror.
But Shelley was not alone in finding creative inspiration in her dreams.
History is replete with writers who dreamt of their most famous creations.
H.P Lovecraft, Charlotte Brontë, and Robert Louis Stephenson are just some of the authors who have had inspiration strike in the dead of night. And it is not just writers. Einstein, Christopher Nolan, and John Lennon all also credit dreams with insights into their creative projects.
But why are dreams so creative? Sleep and dreams are some of the most researched aspects of neuroscience and psychology, but still some of the least understood. The ideas behind dreams and creativity come from the function of sleep in memory and the fact that, while we are asleep, our brains are free from the usual sensations and can, frankly, go crazy.
Sleep is integral to memory. When you are sleeping, your brain gets a chance to forget about the outside world for a bit and just concentrate on itself. During this time it can enhance connections between different parts of the brain and produce structural changes that become our memories, a process known as consolidation. This plasticity, the ability to change in relation to previous experience, is what makes the brain such a great machine.
A German study in 2004 showed how important sleep is for you to make new memories and gain insight into new ideas. The team taught the participants a simple number task. As they learned the rules, the participants could get quicker and quicker. However, there was a trick that they could use to get a lot quicker, if they figured it out. They then sleep-deprived some of the subjects while allowing others a good night sleep. Another group learned the task in the morning and then came back after eight hours of regular wakefulness. They then undertook the task again. The ones that had got a good night’s sleep were then twice as likely to then figure out the little trick, because their brains had been churning the problem over during the night. Your brain isn’t switched off during the night – it continues to work even while you rest.
But as you will know from personal experience, while all this is going on your brain is not completely switched off. During sleep your brain cycles through different phases, known as the sleep cycle. There are five different phases in total, but the one that is of most interest to researchers and creatives alike is REM sleep. No, this is not when you dream of Michael Stipe or drawing blue lines on your face. REM stands for rapid-eye movement because that is what the eyes of someone in this phase of sleep do – they frantically move around as if the person is looking at a million different things with their eyes closed.
Which they are, because this is the phase of sleep when the vast majority of dreaming occurs. It is also the time when your brain is trying to connect the dots between new events – something that happened that day, or something you might have been thinking about just before bed – and old experiences. It is when you brain is trying to make sense of the world by putting two and two together and getting… 2,965.
That is why dreams often don’t make sense.
Your brain is trying to fit new ideas with old, and doesn’t always get it right. But that is also why dreams are so novel and creative.
Unbound by your usual conscience rationalisation of ideas, your brain can try fitting incongruous ideas together to see what fits.
If you want to use sleep to improve your memory, then make sure you have your book at bedtime. It seems you are far more likely to remember something that you learned just before you went to sleep than something from hours earlier. This may also be good evidence for taking naps during the day. If you are learning something new, then allowing your brain to absorb the new information through sleep shortly after you have tried taking it in may mean that it is consolidated into you memory and will be retained ready for later use. This also serves as a warning against cramming and pulling an all-nighter – you simply do not give your brain the chance to absorb everything if you do not sleep.
Creatively, if you want to have some new ideas ready at your brain’s disposal, you can also read about them just before bed and have them fresh and ready in your memory for the next day.
This ‘putting two and two together’ is known as relational memory, and is the bedrock of all creativity, whether it comes to you in dreams or when you are awake. Figuring out relationships between what might seem two disparate pieces of information or knowledge is how people come up with creative ideas. Dreaming is just a particularly efficient way for this to happen, and therefore when major creative breakthroughs can be sought.
As I said, Shelley isn’t alone in being a writer who dreamed of their creations. More recent books that have been inspired by dreams are Stephen King’s Misery and the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. Meyer dreamt of a girl and a vampire boy lying in a night time meadow and talking about how their love could never be. They knew that they were in love, but the boy also knew that he had incredible urges to kill the girl. Meyer’s creativity turned this simple dream into 17 million copies of the Twilight series, along with the big-budget films.
King fell asleep on a plane and started to dream of an author and an obsessed fan. So taken by the story was King, that he sat down at the airport on landing and poured out the first 50 pages of the book right there.
Science backs up King and Meyer. A number of recent studies have found that REM sleep, when we are dreaming, is integral to creativity. In one study from Harvard Medical School, that probably didn’t make the researchers very popular, subjects were woken at different periods of the sleep cycle. Some were woken in the deep sleep phase, when the brain is resting and no dreams are taking place, whereas others were woken during REM sleep when they were dreaming. They then, in this groggy state, had to take a number of creativity tests. The dreamers had a 32% advantage in the tests over the deep sleepers. The researchers in this study suggested that REM sleep makes the brain more flexible and open to newer ways of thinking.
Another study from the University of California found that, as long as REM sleep was involved, you are even more creative after a nap. The researchers looked at how well the participants scored on a creativity test after taking either a long nap that involved some REM sleep, during which they dreamt, or a shorter nap when they didn’t have time to enter a REM phase of sleep (usually about an hour after you fall asleep). Again, the dreamers performed significantly better on the creativity tests than the people who didn’t get to the REM portion of their nap.
Authors are not the only ones that use their dreams for creative inspiration. When ill in Rome working on what must be his biggest hit to date, Piranha II, James Cameron dreamt of a terrifying robot emerging from a fire to attack a woman. Thus Terminator was born.
A possibly apocryphal story about Einstein has his journey to relativity started by a dream. When he was a child, Einstein supposedly dreamed of a field of cows surrounded by an electric fence. The cows were near Einstein, and the farmer was over the other side of the field. For some reason (maybe the farmer feared a cow attack), he switched on the electric fence. Einstein watched as all of the cows immediately jumped backward. Dream Einstein went to tell this to the farmer, but the farmer disagreed – from his perspective the cows had jumped back one by one. Einstein would spend the rest of his career dealing with how one event can look different from two perspectives. And he spent the rest of his life with a fear of cows.
If you look over other famous examples of inspiring a dreams, a common occurrence is that the person was already thinking over their problems. Mary Shelley had spent her entire Swiss holidays talking about horror stories, and desperately wanted to come up with one herself. Add to that the talk that night of life and death, and how to bring life to the dead, and her mind was primed to bring such a monster to life. She should have just gone skiing.
Conscious thinking about a problem, or triggering, is paramount if you want to dream of something specific during the night.
A great example of this thought process is the old wives tale of ‘put a piece of wedding cake under your pillow, and you will dream of your future spouse’. The cake, unless it is really good cake, is unlikely to be sending thoughts into your brain. Instead, you are consciously thinking about your future just before bed, and therefore are more likely to end up dreaming about it.
One person who was obviously triggering his dreams with his conscious work was Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Howe was a nineteenth century American inventor who wanted to relieve people of the monotonous and time-consuming task of constantly sewing up their own clothes whenever they were ripped. His idea for a machine that sewed was great, except for one thing – he couldn’t get the damn thing to work.
Significantly stressed by this problem, his sewing machine started to enter his dreams. One night he dreamt that, unless he could fix his sewing machine, a horde of hungry cannibals was going to kill and eat him. He worked on the design in his dream, but couldn’t solve the problem. The cannibals then started to stab him with their spears. As they did, he noticed a small hole in the end of each spear as they were going in and out of him. He realised that this eye at the point was the answer to his problems. He awoke, sprang out of bed at 4 am, and went downstairs to start on his design.
So if you want to dream of something specifically, try to make sure that it is what you are thinking about just before you nod off. This won’t always work, and as you might not even remember if it does, but you could find that this is a great way to overcome a creative blockage as your brain goes to town on the issue overnight.
As we have seen, not getting enough sleep seems a pretty bad idea for creativity. In general this is the case, and it definitely seems that, if you want to be more creative, the more dreams you can have the better (though you have got to have some experiences to put into those dreams, so this isn’t a call to spend all your time in bed). But there is some anecdotal evidence that some people thrive on insomnia.
Marcel Proust wrote À la recherche du temps perdu during the nights he was awake with a bad illness, and Nabokov called sleep ‘the most moronic fraternity in the world’ and found that his insomnia inspired his greatest works.
Little research supports the idea that insomnia is good for you creatively, but one study from New Zealand did find a link between insomnia and creativity. They looked at two groups of children and found that those that scored highly on creativity tests were also more likely to exhibit disturbed sleep patterns.
What if you could control your dreams though? Instead of having them disappear as soon as you wake, you could interact with them, travel through them, and control exactly what, where, and how you dreamt. Some people say that this is possible through a concept known as lucid dreaming.
Lucid dreaming is a controversial idea within science,
with some saying that it is not possible, and in fact the dreamer is awake during that time. But proponents of the practice say that it is really dreaming, and an ideal way to get to understand your subconscious.
Lucid dreaming is a when the dreamer is aware they are in a dream. Many of us have felt this phenomenon before. Suddenly we notice something out of place, or weird and realise we are dreaming. At this point most of us wake up, but some people can control this point in their dream and continue in the dreamscape. Doing so requires a lot of practice and the ability to look out for the signs you are in a dream. In the film Inception, the dreamers carry tokens that they know will look or feel odd if they are in a dream. Lucid dreamers will do the same, making mental checks when they are awake and trying to make the same checks during dreams. To learn more about how you might be able to dream lucidly, you can watch this video:
Creatively, the ability to control your dreams could give you a lot of freedom. If you are up against an intangible problem, then you could confront it in your dream and try different ideas that the dream throws up, why still maintaining control over what is happening.
It is a cliché to say that it is boring to hear about other people’s dreams. To a certain extent, like all clichés, that is true. Your dreams are unique to you, and only your prior experiences, your current thoughts, and your ongoing emotions can be used to make sense. But dreams are an interesting insight into other people – They can tell you what is really on a person’s mind, exactly because they are a manifestation of their experiences, thoughts, and troubles.
Dreams are also an exciting problem solving strategy for your brain that you might be ignoring.
Start keeping a dream journal to record what happens in your head during the night, and share you dreams with others. It may be that your brain is coming up with great ideas when you least realise it.