The New York Times has been publishing a blog, “All-Nighters,” which it describes as “an exploration of insomnia, sleep and the nocturnal life.” It’s of personal interest to me since I’ve suffered insomnia ever since my mother’s death four years ago.
I found the March 19 entry, “Why We Need to Dream” by Jonah Lehrer, especially interesting because it dispatches with the argument of recent years that dreams are erratic firings of the brain’s components — sound and fury representing nothing.
Lehrer cites plenty of recent research demonstrating that not to be so at all. Researchers now say dreams are likely efforts to discover associations between all events and images. In other words, they assist problem solving and leave no ostensibly unrelated material unexamined (and thus their weirdness). Indeed, dreams are important to the creative process generally:
In recent years, scientists have discovered that R.E.M. sleep isn’t just essential for the formation of long-term memories: it might also be an essential component of creativity.
In a 2004 paper published in Nature, Jan Born, a neuroscientist at the University of Lübeck, described the following experiment: a group of students was given a tedious task that involved transforming a long list of number strings into a new set of number strings. This required the subjects to apply a painstaking set of algorithms. However, Born had designed the task so that there was an elegant shortcut, which could only be uncovered if the subjects saw the subtle links between the different number sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 percent of people found the shortcut, even when given several hours to mull over the task. However, when Born allowed people to sleep between experimental trials, they suddenly became much more clever: 59 percent of all participants were able to find the shortcut. Born argues that deep sleep and dreaming “set the stage for the emergence of insight” by allowing us to mentally represent old ideas in new ways.
This is certainly no surprise to me. I’ve told clients for years that when they find themselves blocked in a creative project, to “sleep on it.” It’s old advice, but I long ago learned that if I write the first two paragraphs of a column before going to bed, the column virtually writes itself the next morning.
It’s a great feeling to see this confirmed by neuroscience. It also validates Freud’s position that dreams are intimately connected to real-life events, no matter how other-worldly their narrative is, and have important information to impart. In my experience, dreams not only reveal the positive unseen associations the personal psyche makes. They also reveal the unhelpful associations that may, for example, underlie a repetition compulsion.
Dismissed in recent years as some sort of quackery, much of Freud’s and Jung’s depth psychology is increasingly reiterated by brain science. Depth psychology was the subject of my PhD studies and it’s quite gratifying to see its fascinations, like dream imagery, regain the attention they deserve.
(Of course, in another Times blog post, a contributor reports that sleep deprivation eases depression, leaving the question of what a depressed artist should do!)