Dreams as Inspiration

Yesterday’s question about what inspires you sparked a couple comments about dreams providing inspiration. I wanted to touch on that idea briefly, because I think it’s worthy of special attention.

One of the things that makes dreams such an excellent source of inspiration is the fact that there’s no fear that your idea is unoriginal, because it came from your own brain in the first place. This also eliminates any concern that you might be breaking copyright, unless you take the movie Inception a little too seriously.

Before tackling how to make the most of a dream, let’s take a moment to establish what a dream really is. Theories about what causes dreams, what they mean, and how to interpret them are as ubiquitous as people who will tell you about the crazy dream they had last night, but studies to nail down scientifically the answers to those questions have proven somewhat inconsistent. However, we do know some things about dreams.

We know that we dream throughout our entire night of sleep, but the most bizarre dreams happen during Stage 2 sleep, also known as R.E.M. sleep. R.E.M sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is the second stage of the sleep cycle. When you sleep you go through a series of four cycles. Stage 1 is the shallow sleep when you’re first dozing off. During Stage 1 your senses are largely still attuned to your surroundings. You’re aware of things you hear, things you smell, things touching you, and often the dreams you have during this stage incorporate these stimuli.

Stage 2 sleep, the R.E.M. sleep, is when your brain shuts out external stimuli and begins firing in some very interesting ways. A leading theory in the psychological world is that during this stage of sleep, your brain is rehashing the events of the day and the things you’ve learned and is imprinting them into your long term memory. A study done for Scientific American Frontiers revealed that during this phase dreamers report the most bizarre and fantastical events. These dreams are also the most memorable, and some people will have dreams during this stage that they remember their whole lives.

Stages 3 and 4 of the sleep cycle are the deeper, more restful periods of sleep, but we know that we still dream during these stages. The same study I referenced above woke sleepers during these stages as well and asked them to immediately reflect on what they had been dreaming. They reported situations of serenity and relaxation. However, come the morning they couldn’t remember having had these dreams.

So when we talk about dreams that are worth holding onto for inspiration, it’s the Stage 2 (R.E.M.) dreams that we’re mostly likely to find useful. Any references to dreams in the rest of this post will be referring to these kind of dreams.

We know that dreams usually relate to events of the day, or things we’ve learned. This doesn’t mean that everything in our dreams comes from something that we experienced over the course of the day. I once dreamed that I was walking around in the House of the Rock, even though it had been years since last I visited it. But dream studies have revealed that the majority of people who can recall their dreams can pinpoint specific details that related to the previous day’s events.

We know that dreams often reflect deep desires or deep fears. They can also reflect inner motives, opinions about people or things, and our deepest held beliefs. Stress can also play a huge factor in our dreams. We’re all familiar with the meme about standing in front of the classroom in your underwear on the day of a big report. While not everyone has had this dream, likely everyone can relate an experience where they had some kind of major performance, engagement, or upcoming responsibility and dreamed that they somehow failed to do what they were supposed to do. Actually, this is a very regular experience for me.

We don’t know why we dream, but we have theories. There are two leading theories as to why we dream. The first is that our dreams are actually the process by which our brains convert short term memory into long term memory.

When it comes to memory, our brains have two ways of storing information. There is short term memory, which is useful for remembering a phone number in the time it takes to close the phone book and dial the number, or for remembering to pick up milk from the grocery store on the way home. But our brains seem to be limited as to how much information they can retain in that short term zone, and we need to do a “memory dump” regularly to avoid overloading or losing more important information.

Then there’s the long term memory. It is widely believed that our long term memory capabilities are limitless, and that in fact anything that we’ve converted into long term memory stays there until the day we die, and the only problem is with accessing those memories, not that the memory no longer exists. Whether or not this is actually true is virtually impossible to test, however.

So how does your brain decide what to move from short term to long term? It would seem that subconsciously throughout the day you’re assigning priorities to information that you take in. Like a supercomputer slotting information into a database, your brain is slotting things you see, hear, read, experience, and listing in order of most to least important.

Many psychologists believe that what’s happening when you hit Stage 2 sleep is that your brain is running down that priority list and moving bits of information from short term memory to long term memory. But because the information is broken up and categorized and prioritized according to some kind of subconscious plan, it doesn’t fit nicely into a chronological order of the day’s events, nor would it even make much sense if you were somehow able to narrate it as you go along.

But our brains are designed with a need to impose order upon chaos. And so here’s where this first theory explains the concept of dreaming. The idea is that as our brain runs through the information it’s converting into long term memory, it tries to make sense of the information by creating a “story”. Since the pieces don’t match with each other, it reaches into the long term memory and pulls out related information, similar experiences of the past or images that are associated, and fills in the gaps. So if over the course of the day you played basketball, ate a brisket sandwich, and watched Star Wars, you may dream that you’re Luke Skywalker playing basketball, while your childhood friend (who you first watched Star Wars with) prepares a brisket next to the basketball court using your mother’s special recipe. Or something like that.

Another leading theory concerning why we dream is that it’s part of the brain’s natural process for preserving synapses. Synapses are the connection between the neurons in our brains, and all brain activity involves electrical activity between these neurons across the synapses. Brain studies have shown that when portions of the brain aren’t being used, the synapses quickly begin to collapse and become unusable. New synapses can be built, but the older we get the less efficient our brains become at generating these synapses.

So the theory is that our brain has a natural process for preserving these synapses by causing them to “auto-fire” even while we’re sleeping. To do so, it grabs random pieces of information from our memories, and goes to the freshest memories first because they’re most easy to access. And once again, because of the need to create order out of chaos, the brain tries to organize these pieces of information into some kind of story that makes sense, often filing in gaps with various related images and memories to the things it’s using to fire on the synapses.

And why does stress influence the dreams? Often when we are stressed about something we spend a lot of time thinking about it. Studies have shown that if you think a lot about something just as you fall asleep, you’re more likely to incorporate it into your dreams. So with either of the above theories, it makes sense that what we’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about will end up playing a huge role.

We know that our dreams make use of the most creative parts of our brain. Whichever theory you hold for why we dream, it makes good sense that our imaginations would play a huge role in them. Brain scans done on people dreaming already show more activity on the right side of the brain (the side most associated with creativity and imagination), but in a study done in 2003 (referenced in this article) found that the connection goes even deeper. Those who are more creative tend to remember their dreams more vividly, and the more bizarre a dream, the higher the chance that it will be remembered. What this all really amounts to is that, quite simply, when we are dreaming we are most in tune with our creative side. This ought to give us every reason to pay attention to our dreams as a source of inspiration!

Okay, now that we’ve covered the concept of dreams fairly thoroughly (or thoroughly enough for this article), what about using them as creative inspiration?

Obviously, not every dream is going to make a bestselling novel. No one is going to think it makes a good story that you were driving down the freeway in a clown car and suddenly William Shatner was pulling you out of the car with a giant hand, while singing about Bilbo Baggins and feeding you jelly beans (don’t ask). But if you have a dream (as I once did) about a strange girl with completely white skin, purple eyes, and black hair living on an alien planet where secret research is conducted, a few probing questions about where the story could go may lead you to a rather developed book. But you may not steal that idea, because it’s mine and I’m hard at work on it already. Go find your own dreams.

There’s a hitch to all this, though: How to remember what you dreamed? Particularly bizarre and vivid dreams may be easily remembered, but how many of us haven’t had the experience of waking up thinking about the dream we were having, only to have it fade by lunch time? What do you do about that?

Keep a dream journal. This can be as simple as a notebook by your bed that you can write in the moment you wake up. Record every image you can remember, every feeling you experienced as you awoke, and try to latch onto particular elements of the dream that might make for good story fodder. An interesting side benefit of this practice is that you actually start remembering your dreams more often, because you’re practicing it and your brain is getting used to how to do it.

Try to program your dreams ahead of time. This is an odd practice that is sometimes associated with lucid dreaming (which I’m not even going to get into), but the idea is that before you fall asleep, as you lay in bed, focus your mind on something in particular that you’d like to dream about. Trying to figure out where to go next in a story? Maybe try to think about the main character, what he’s like, what his interests are, who he is as a person. Really try to get inside his mind. When you awake, record what you dreamed in your journal and see if you can’t link some thoughts and images to your character that may help guide the next phase of your story.

Spend time daydreaming. I don’t mean that while you’re sitting at work or in class you need to be off in la-la land. But as you have opportunities, when you’re engaged in those mindless tasks like stirring the pot of noodles or shoveling snow off the sidewalks, let your mind wander to far off world and distant lands. The study I linked above mentions that people who spend more time daydreaming are better able to cross the line back and forth between dreams and reality and retain information. The more you daydream, the more likely you are to remember the dreams you had.

Make sure to get lots of sleep. Your brain needs at least three to four complete sleep cycles per night to function properly. Each cycle lasts roughly 90-120 minutes. So if you want to get your brain the most complete amount of rest it needs, shoot for an eight hour time block each night, which will give you plenty of time to get in four complete cycles. When you get through a complete cycle, you are better able to remember what you dreamed during your R.E.M. sleep. No one knows exactly why this is, but it would seem that it’s a matter of overall brain health, and when your brain is able to tie a nice little bow on the night’s rest, it’s better able to go back and tell you what happened during that time.

Hopefully, if you’re like me and can find some inspiration from your dreams, this article will help you get a little more intentional about using your dreams. As a writer, I find that anything I can do to develop and maximize on my creativity is well worth the effort. Happy writing!

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4 thoughts on “Dreams as Inspiration

  1. I always wake up immediately and write down my dreams, but everytime I dream, it seems like it is right before I have to wake up. I never just drift off after the dream and wake up later, but I wake up the instant the dream is over. I don’t know if that means that I skip the third and fourth parts of sleep or I just sleep in a different order (like phase 1, 3, 4, 2). Another thing is that I dream about TV show characters, so not exactly non-copyright. (I’ve dreamed about NCIS at least twice) And other bizarre things like the president and law enforcement. I also dream about my friends.
    I sometimes can connect my dreams to something in the last day, but other times there is no inspiration for my dream.

  2. Mmm, I should have given a little more careful detail to the sleep cycle.

    The way the stages work is more like sinking into a pool. Stage 1 is just below the surface of the water. Stage 2 is where the really interesting things live. Stages 3 and 4 are the dark and peaceful depths. When you go through a sleep cycle, you go from Stage 1 to 2, then sink into 3 and 4, then back up to 2, then back down to 3 and 4, and so on through the night, until at last you rise back up to 1 and eventually wake naturally.

    Unless, of course, you use an alarm clock. If you’re someone who wakes up very suddenly from a dream when your alarm goes off, then it means you’re not cycling completely before you’re awoken. A good strategy is to change what time your alarm goes off by 10-15 minutes. Actually, it’s sometimes good to try setting it earlier, because sometimes what’s happening is about 15-20 minutes before your alarm goes off you rise up to Stage 1, but somewhere in your consciousness you know you have some time yet, so you sink back to Stage 2. So waking a little earlier can be a good thing, and you’ll feel less tired, since getting woken from Stage 2 is not as gentle on your consciousness as waking naturally.

    I’ve read about people who have slowly adjusted their alarm here and there to the point that they always awoke just before their alarm went off, feeling refreshed and ready for the day, and that they were actually able to eliminate the use of alarm clock altogether and have no negative side effects.

  3. I only use an alarm clock when I go to school, and at that time I never dream. On the weekends, I wake up without the alarm clock and wake up during phase 2. Maybe I don’t have a phase 1. I just go directly from waking to phase 2 and back.

  4. Sleep stages are funny things, and so are dreams. What we know about the whole cycle is from watching brain wave patterns recorded via EEG while people sleep. We do know that everyone goes through all the stages, and that if you consistently missed a stage your brain would misfire and start having some major problems. Certain drugs have been known to interrupt certain stages in the sleep cycle and the result is not good: Hallucinations, paranoia, seizures, etc.

    But we don’t always remember everything we dream. In fact, many people never remember what they dream. But they do dream. It’s all about how much activity, what kind of activity, and how much proper rest we get.

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