Dreaming is exciting and fun, but it also has an important function. Dreaming helps us learn, grow and be a better version of ourselves.
I love sleeping, but I love dreaming even more. Anything and everything can happen in a dream, and it usually does. The most absurd and weird things happen to you, and you don’t get surprised by them. You take them as the most normal thing that could happen to you.
Colours, sounds and smells are different. You can fly, perform art or abilities with masterly skills that you can only dream of (literally!), or have fantastic sex. You can have a conversation with long-dead relatives or historical figures and don’t be surprised at all about it.
You can also have the most dreadful nightmare and wake up relieved knowing it was just a dream. Or that other big relief when something is going wrong in a dream, say you lost a lot of money or are late for a deadline, and you realise it is just a dream and you don’t need to worry about it anymore.
Dreaming is fascinating, but why talk about it in a blog about building a humane Future of Work? Dreaming is wonderful, but it is also mysterious. It is unclear why we dream, what we dream for and how it affects our brain and mental capacity. It seems to have an important function. It has been linked to learning and memory fixation, problem-solving, rewiring of the brain and many other positive effects. Dreaming is amazing on its own, but it is also beneficial and helpful for human beings and our personal growth, and just because of that, it merits its own privileged space in this blog.
What do we dream for?
Everybody dreams a few hours every night. Yes, we all do it, every single night. We often don’t remember doing it, and many people never remember dreaming at all, but they do it every night.
We are almost sure that most mammals also dream, as they seem to have the same neural activity we do when we dream. The problem is, we cannot know it for sure because they cannot tell us about it, as simple as that. However, anybody who has seen dogs or cats sleeping long enough will tell you they most definitely dream.
If dreaming is so widespread among humans and our mammal cousins alike, it must have evolved to have a function, but what is it? We don’t know it for sure. There are different theories about it, but none are yet conclusive. There is a science by the cool name of oneirology studying dreams, how they work and their purpose (there is an even cooler name, oneironaut, which refers to those able to navigate lucidly or consciously their dreams – more of that later). Oneirologists have proposed several theories for the function of dreaming.
In the 70s, some research concluded dreaming helps in the learning process. This has been corroborated by further research and experimental evidence that links dreaming with improved learning. Some scientists believe dreaming helps fix and strengthen the brain wiring required for learning, while others argue that dreams work like the cleaning-up operations of computers when they are offline.
Other theories highlighted the evolutive advantages of dreaming. Throughout our history, dreaming also allowed us to rehearse and practice different behaviours and acts that would allow us to face different challenges successfully and survive. In this sense, it was another way to learn and practice.
Yet other researchers have highlighted the quasi-therapeutic function of dreams, as they enable us to process trauma in a safe place.
This and other theories tell us that dreaming is still a bit of a mystery and that oneirologists have still a long way to go to find the correct answers about it, but something is clear: dreaming has a function and has helped us evolve and survive as a species, and its role seems to be linked to learning and the effective operation of our most important organ, the brain.
The wonders of lucid dreaming
Have you ever realised you were in a dream? And when that happened, did you wake up, or did you continue dreaming? In most cases, when we realise we are dreaming, we wake up, but when that doesn’t happen, and we continue with our dream, aware that it isn’t real and it is only in our minds, we say we are lucid dreaming. This is one of the most fascinating estates you can be in.
In what is today considered the bible of the science of dreaming, Exploring the world of lucid dreaming, dream researchers Stephen LaBerge and Howard Rheingold explored the concept of lucid dreaming and gave practical tips on how to achieve this estate.
Lucid dreamers, or oneironauts, can control their dreams. They can decide to skillfully fly, meet that actress/actor they are dying to meet, play in a band in front of thousands of people, visit that country they always meant to, or speak to their mother who passed away some years ago. They know it is a dream, and it will keep the dreamlike weird colours and sensations attached to it, but they will be able to control it and shape it in the way that works best for them. Lucid dreamers are architects of their dreams.
This has some obvious advantages. First of all, it can be a lot of fun. This shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Having fun is underrated in today’s society, so worried about performance and productivity. A dream where you are almost like a God who can control the entire setting of the dream and what will happen can be one the most enjoyable experiences you can have. It beats watching any movie for sure.
Second, you can rehearse, practise, and gain confidence in acquiring new skills. Imagine you need to present in front of a public or play the violin in a packed concert hall but are afraid and have stage fright. You can practice it in your dreams until you feel confident.
Third, I mentioned earlier how most people don’t always remember their dreams. Considering we spend sleeping more or less a third of our entire lives, it is a waste of time that we don’t remember anything about it. When you are a lucid dreamer, you usually remember your dreams, and they tend to be pleasant and enjoyable, so you are better using that third of your life you wouldn’t be remembering. It’s as if you lived longer, and that extra time you lived was full of adventures and wondrous experiences.
So, what is there not to like?
How to get there?
Like most things in life, some people are more easily predisposed to lucid dreaming and are avid lucid dreamers, while others will have more difficulties achieving this estate. Still, most people seem to be able to do it with some practice.
First of all, you need to start improving your dream recall. There is not much you can do with your dreams if you can’t remember them. Doing this is quite simple: you just need to write what you remember about your dreams when you wake up. Dreams are the most elusive memories. If you don’t register them straight away, you will forget them.
Usually, we remember the dreams if we wake up in the middle of one. Even if you wake up in the middle of the night, it helps to write a few words about the dream so that you can remember it later. The more you do this, the more you will remember, and the less you will have to write about it to recall it.
When I started taking notes about my dreams a few months ago, I would remember a few dreams per week, and now there are some nights in which I remember three or four dreams in one single night. I don’t even write them all down anymore, although it helps to do it now and then to keep the habit.
Once you recall your dreams regularly, you should start analysing them and looking for what LaBerge and Rheingold call “dream signs”. These are the signs you get in a dream that tell you are actually in a dream and not awake. They are not easy to spot while you are dreaming, as our mind deceives us when we are in this estate, and nothing seems to surprise us, but we can usually identify them when we remember the dream when we are awake. Usual dream signs are one of your acquaintances being in a place where they don’t belong, people doing things that go against the laws of physics like, for example, flying, and, in general, any weird stuff that can only happen in dreams.
Once you start to get familiar with dream signs, the next step is to recognise them while dreaming. That’s how you realise you are, in effect, dreaming and not living your awake life. This is quite difficult for what I explained earlier: our minds deceive us into thinking we are awake and that seeing our grandma floating three metres above the ground is normal.
A trick if you are in doubt is to look at some characters or numbers written somewhere (a book, a wall, your watch), look away and then look back again. If you are dreaming, the chances are that the characters have changed when you look back again. For some reason, our dreaming brain never puts the same characters back in the same place. If you read something, you look away, and when you look back the letters or numbers have changed, you know you are dreaming.
This is a crucial moment. The moment you realise you are dreaming, you will usually wake up. It isn’t easy to remain asleep when you realise you are not awake, but this is the final stage before lucid dreaming. If you can stay in your dream and be aware you are dreaming, you will be able to control your dream somehow. You should start with something simple, like going for a fly. Flying is one of the most exhilarating actions you can do, and it is not difficult to do it once you get the hang of it. After you practice a bit, you can start mastering your dreams and dreaming whatever you want and with whomever you want.
Believe it or not, this is a fantastic skill to have. You enjoy a bigger part of your day now, and it can have benefits and positive impacts on your waking hours too.
Problem-solving while sleeping
A while back, I read a Twitter thread where the author suggested a productivity hack for problem-solving. He said that every night, just before going to sleep, he would think hard about the problems he needed to solve and jot them down in a notebook. He wouldn’t think about how to solve the problem; he would just list the things he needed to solve.
Then he would go to sleep, and the next morning he would usually have more clarity about solving those problems. He has been much more productive and creative since he started doing this.
There is some research about this: some Nobel prizes have even been won during sleep time. Dreaming and even non-dreaming sleep seem to help us solve problems. Our brains don’t stop working while we are resting. Our unconscious mind is hard at it while we are flying or talking to dead people.
I haven’t tried this trick myself, but I will give it a go. It also seems to help writing better, so who knows, it might positively impact this blog.
The two meanings of dreams
In English and many other languages, at least the European ones I am familiar with, the word dream has two meanings. On the one hand, we have the oneiric one we talked about in this post. A dream is a hallucination we have while we sleep, where weird things usually happen, and we don’t think they are weird or unusual. On the other hand, a dream is also a vision or an ambitious goal we have for ourselves, something we want to do, as in “follow your dreams”.
It is funny that these two meanings exist in so many languages. It didn’t have to be this way. I haven’t done the research, but maybe this has its origins in Latin and Greek, and then it was passed to all these newer European languages. It could be.
I prefer to think that our night dreams and our life aspirations and goals are tightly interlinked, and that’s why this is reflected in language. What happens while we sleep has always had an unreal feel, but it has always had an anchor in reality and our minds. Whatever we dream comes from our minds, and it has its origins in our life experiences and our innermost aspirations.
The fictional hallucinations we live every night are fun and exciting, but their raison d’etre isn’t purely ludic. They have a function, and they help us be better and more effective persons, thus helping us achieve our goals and ambitions. Often they also help us decide what those ambitions should be. Often we dream about something, and we realise that this is the dream we want to achieve in our lives.
The dreams we have every night help us achieve our life dreams.