Make Your Dreams Work for You

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Talk about an award-winning airplane nap.

In 2005, artist and architect Solange Fabião was traveling to Biarritz, France, for a site visit to the future home of the Cité de L’Océan et du Surf, a museum focused on the ocean. Charged with creating a design for the museum for an architecture competition, Fabião fell asleep “imbued with the feeling of this mission: the creation of a design,” she said.

While slumbering, she dreamed of a big encased wave. She saw herself walking through a large building — simple, white and modern — but with a swooping blue surface that curved oddly over her. She realized she was beneath an ocean wave forming the ceiling of the room while also connecting to the shore.

Fabião awoke on the plane, sketched her dream quickly, then spent the next few days drawing it to scale once she had returned home to New York. Ultimately, she entered her design into the contest — and won. The museum opened in 2011. The core of its design, dreamed up by Fabião in collaboration with Steven Holl Architects, won the prestigious Annual Design Review architecture competition in 2011, among other awards.

Dream Incubation

This is just one example of how your dreams can work for you to help solve problems that are beyond your reach while you’re awake, says Deirdre Barrett, a clinical assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and the author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use Their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving — And How You Can Too and eight other books about dreaming and other subjects. She is currently working on a new book, slated for publication in 2017, about the theory behind why dreams help solve problems.

The concept is called dream incubation. If you’re struggling with a problem or issue, there’s a way to try to guide your dreams so that your unconscious mind might unravel a solution. “Psychologists have developed incubation rituals to encourage problem-solving dreams,” Barrett writes in The Committee of Sleep. People can use their dreams to address emotional issues or problems with other people, but creative-problem solving can also benefit from dream incubation, as Fabião shows.

Tips for Purposeful Slumber

How to do it yourself? Keep a notebook, pen and flashlight or other small light source by your bed. Write down your problem in the notebook — just a sentence or a few words. Train yourself to think about whatever problem you want to solve just before you nod off.

When you first wake up, lie in bed quietly and remember what you were dreaming about. “Note whether there is any trace of a recalled dream and invite more of the dream to return if possible, then write it down,” writes Barrett. Don’t get up from bed, look around, or even speak — just write.

Later, when you’re more clear-headed, you can analyze your notes to see if they show any insights or resolutions for your problem. Do this as many nights as you need to try to figure out a solution. Then, if people ask how your issue was resolved, you can tell them it came to you in a dream.

About the Author

Cheryl AlkonCheryl Alkon is a Massachusetts-based writer, researcher and editor, and the author of Balancing Pregnancy With Pre-Existing Diabetes: Healthy Mom, Healthy Baby.