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Dreaming of Solutions

By Matt Andazola
Journal Staff Writer
          More than 150 years ago, Elias Howe invented a refined lock stitch sewing machine that would revolutionize manufacturing, but he hit a snag.
        "He was stuck on the needle," says Deirdre Barrett, psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. He couldn't get it through fabric and bring thread back again.
        Then he had a frightening dream of island savages threatening to spear him if he didn't finish the design. He awoke excited, because their spear tips had holes — like needles with eyes in the point — and the solution to his problem.
        Our life is influenced by dreams whether we like it or not, says Barrett, author of "The Committee of Sleep." But she and other experts say dreams can be harnessed to solve problems (especially when we have to think visually or out of the box) and increase our emotional intelligence.
        Our sleeping minds took the spotlight this summer as the film "Inception" grossed $283 million at the box office and asked us to wonder if someone else could change our behavior by entering our dreams.
        Most of us think of dreams as stories that help process waking life, says Dr. Barry Krakow, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences in Albuquerque.
        While science can't say for sure, Krakow, author of "Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: 7 Keys to Sleeping Through the Night," says he believes that's true.
        "Life is multidimensional," Krakow says. It would be impossible to consciously understand all of it — work, family, society — as a single unit. But "dreams have that capacity to integrate thoughts and images."
        And dreams often do more than merely echo waking life, Barrett says. She points to past studies showing that, while bad dreams often follow bad days, it's frequently the other way around. Our days often mirror dreams from the night before.
        "I think dreams do set the emotional tone for the day," says Thomas McKenna, who does dream therapy at Life Change Psychotherapy Institute in Albuquerque. "Sometimes it's more subtle," he says, less a direct link than an "emotional coloring."
        Finding a fix
        Dreams' effects can be less ambiguous, Barrett says, noting her own interviews, as well as historical anecdotes, where "dreams rather dramatically influenced waking life."
        Albuquerque artist Ryan Singer knows that well; a week before his first one-man show in Phoenix, he was scrambling for ideas for a last-minute painting.
        He had a dream that he was driving on the rim of a canyon, nothing but fog and sheer cliff to his side, "like the edge of the world." Looking to the right in his dream, Singer, who is Navajo, saw a road sign emblazoned with an image that depicts a pejorative term for American Indians.
        "I had a pen and paper right next to me and I sketched it out and went back to sleep," he says. "The next morning I was like, 'Holy Cow.' "
        Singer made the sketch into a painting, which has become a logo he uses on T-shirts, buttons, stickers and business cards to reflect his defiant, contemporary artistic identity.
        Because dreams are heavily visual, Barrett says problems that demand visual solutions are easier to solve in dreams.
        Another tale Barrett relates is that of chemist August Kekulé grappling with the molecular structure of benzene, troubling because it seemed not to have the linear structure scientists assumed for other molecules.
        He dreamed of several molecules writhing like snakes, when the benzene snake turned to eat its own tail. The resulting ring shape showed benzene's unprecedented, true structure.
        Thinking outside the box is easier in dreams because we aren't as quick to censor ourselves, Barrett says.
        Outside-the-box thinking can ease relationship problems, as well, she says. For instance, if we continually get in the same fight with our spouse, our habitual responses to their behavior may be to blame.
        In a dream, we could respond differently and find a new outcome.
        Noticing feelings
        More ambiguous problems also frequently find their way into dreams, Krakow says. For instance, we do something wrong in a dream, then feel guilty and wake up.
        Often, we wave off our dreams and associated feelings — "I'm awake now, thank goodness it's not real" — and get on with the morning.
        But Krakow says there's opportunity to be found in paying attention to how dreams make us feel.
        "Ignore all of the content and just focus on what you feel in the dream," he says. "Is there something else in your day, your daily life, that you feel guilty about?"
        Dreams help us gain insight into our emotional lives, he says, which can be difficult, especially for Americans.
        Krakow says we tend to use one phrase frequently — "I feel stressed" — when stress is the result of real feelings like anger, frustration or guilt.
        "If you keep using the word 'stress,' you're not tapping into the emotion," he says. "A lot of people really don't want to experience emotion."
        Emotions aren't weaknesses to overcome, he explains, "they're there to preserve and protect you."
        'Inner therapist'
        McKenna agrees, and, as a dream therapist, he advocates paying attention to dreams' content.
        "It gives you a language for your emotional life," he says. "Our emotional, heart self is a very deep part of who we are."
        McKenna cautions against dream dictionaries or the like, saying that while we all have archetypes and motifs in our dreams, their meanings are individual.
        Much of Krakow's practice involves improving sleep patterns for people with post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares. He says the recurrent nightmares of some PTSD sufferers can retraumatize them, night after night.
        That isn't the same, he says, as someone who has nightmares immediately following a traumatic event.
        Because of the harm nightmares cause, Krakow says PTSD sufferers are served better by altering them, rather than working with them.
        But most of us benefit greatly from paying attention to our dreams and sharing them with others, McKenna says.
        "A dream can be your little inner therapist if you know how to listen to 'em," McKenna says.
        Emotional messages
        Dr. Barry Krakow, an Albuquerque sleep researcher, offers these tips for using your dreams to foster more emotional intelligence.
        When you wake up:
        • Pay attention to the dream. Don't toss it aside as you begin your routine.
        • Pay attention to your strongest emotion when you wake, rather than the dream's specific content.
        • Notice how your body feels (emotions have physical manifestations, such as anger resulting in tightness in the chest or fists).
        • Ask yourself if the emotion is connected to, or is trying to tell you something about, your life or circumstances.
        Solving problems
        Psychologists have created rituals to encourage problem-solving dreams. These usually target interpersonal and emotional problems, but they can also work for creative tasks.
        • Write the problem in a brief phrase or sentence, placing it near the bed.
        • Review the problem for a few minutes before going to sleep.
        • If you can, while lying in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image.
        • Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem just as you drift off.
        • Keep a pen and paper on the night table.
        • While still in bed after waking, see if there is a trace of a dream and invite it to return if possible. Write it down.
        • You may also want to arrange objects connected to the problem on the night table or on the wall across from the bed.
        — Adapted from "The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem Solving — And You Can Too" by Deirdre Barrett

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