Some of the greatest minds in history have been propelled by creative breakthroughs during, or inspired by, their dreams. In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes had a series of sleeping visions in which, as historian George Makari records in Soul Machine: The Invention of the Modern Mind, the great doubter realized that the natural world might be governed by mathematical laws. Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a dream the night of his father’s funeral where he saw a printed notice reading “You are requested to close the eye(s),” which prompted him, fittingly enough, to write The Interpretation of Dreams.
Now new research in the Journal of Creative Behavior suggests that there’s a simple enough way to use your dreams to be more creative: just journal about them. Greater dream recall was linked with greater creativity, thanks to, the researchers speculate, people’s dreaming minds starting to sprinkle their zaniness into their staid waking ones.
Mauricio Sierra-Siegert and his team at the Colegiatura Colombiana in Medellín, Colombia, assessed this empirically in a couple steps. They asked their participants—all undergrads—to do the same creativity assessment twice, but 27 days apart. It’s a fun, arty task called the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, where you’re asked to take little visual fragments—a circle, a squiggle, a zigzagging line—and turn them into fuller images, which judges then rate for their degree of creativity. You “might work a couple of isolated curves into the number eight, a snowman, or an intricate snaking hydra with faces depicting different political figures,” explains Alex Fradera, who covered the study for the British Psychological Association’s Research Digest.
In the time between the assessments, 55 participants wrote daily about what they could remember of their dreams from the night before and a control group of 32 people just wrote about an event from the previous day. While both the dream-writers and the control group improved in the degree of detail and other “raw” features in their drawings, only the dreamers improved in the more purely creative qualities, like how much humor and fantasy were involved in their second attempts relative to their first.
Sierra-Siegert and his colleagues contend that the creativity increase might be due to increased collaboration between the dreaming and waking mind. Being more aware of dream events by way of recall “might allow a cross-fertilization between “ordinary” and “dream” modes of consciousness,” they write in the paper, which could lead to a “loosening” of your predictable, habitual, daytime patterns of seeing things. The more you pay attention to your dreams, in other words, the more you’re priming your mind to take advantage of the associations and bizarro logic of the dreamscape—and, in turn, it could open you up to greater creativity.