Chapter 12 was giving me fits. Something was wrong with it, but what? I couldn’t figure it out while sitting at my computer, staring at the stubborn words on the screen. I knew the answer lay hidden in my head somewhere, if only I could persuade my subconscious to cough it up. So I did what I’ve often done: I asked my brain to solve the problem while the rest of me slept.
The next morning I woke up knowing how to fix the chapter.
I’m a great believer in the power of both dreams and the unconscious. My first published novel, The Heat of the Moon, originated with a dream in which I saw, as if I were standing nearby and watching, two little girls clinging to each other during a storm. (I gave the same dream to my protagonist, Rachel Goddard, to help her find the truth about her family.)
Most of the time, though, my unconscious mind cuts a clear path through the tangled thicket of plot I’ve created. Before I fall asleep, I think about what I need to figure out, and when I wake the answer is usually waiting. Sometimes I will remember a fragment of a dream involving my characters. If nothing helpful comes to me, I start asking whether that chapter or scene should be removed from the book altogether. The answer is usually yes.
Because I’ve done this successfully for so long, I was especially intrigued by an article in Scientific American Mind about how to train your brain to solve problems through dreams. The author, psychologist Dierdre Barrett, describes decades of research proving that our brains are hard at work while our bodies sleep. Scans of the brain areas that are active during dreaming (or REM–rapid eye movement–sleep) show we have many more dreams than we will ever remember. Parts of the brain associated with visual imagery and emotion become more active in REM sleep than when we’re awake, while the part of the cortex that censors our thoughts and actions takes a rest. We consolidate new learning and memories during REM sleep. And we can solve problems and come up with new ideas while asleep.
In her research, Barrett found that many professionals, including artists and writers, credit dreams with improving their work. Nobel Prizes in science have resulted from dreams. Friedrich August Kekule discovered the structure of benzene through a dream. Dmitry Mendeleyev’s layout of the periodic table of the elements was inspired by a dream. Architect Solange Fabiao’s design for the Museum of Ocean and Surf in Biarritz came from a dream. So don’t scoff at the idea that your mind might solve problems and generate creative new ideas while you’re asleep.
Barrett suggests taking these steps to train your brain to work on specific problems at night:
1. Write down the problem, briefly and concisely.
2. Think about the problem for a few minutes before going to bed.
3. In bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image if you can (not always possible, but this often yields the best results).
4. Tell yourself to dream about the problem.
5. When you wake, lie in bed quietly and allow your dreams to come back to you.
Soon the phrase “sleep on it” will have a whole new meaning for you.