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Memory, Sleep

How keeping a dream diary could boost your creativity

Evidence suggests that greater dream recall is correlated with measures of creativity.

31 August 2017

By Alex Fradera

For me, dreams and creativity have always been wound tightly together. As a teenager leafing through my dad’s Heavy Metal comic strip anthologies, it was Little Nemo in Slumberland (about a character who has fantastic dreams) that stunned me the most. When I became a psychology researcher, I was fascinated with altered states and formed a short-lived dream research group with my fellow PhD students – somnambulant life seemed so mysterious, and the then-received wisdom that dreams were just brain static was becoming untenable. Today, outside of my science hours, I perform improvisational theatre, most intensively with The Dreaming, a surrealistic troupe mimicking dream-logic. And in recent years, I’ve made my sporadic dream-logging into a habit (tip: keep a voice recorder by your bed and capture everything you can without worrying about sense or structure). Could this habit make me more creative? According to new research published in the Journal of Creative Behavior, it could.

Together with my own sense that dreams feed creativity, there are a number of anecdotes that press the same message: Mendeleev’s discovery of the periodic table, Elias Howe’s conception of the lock-stitch sewing machine, Descarte’s road to the scientific method and James Cameron’s ideas for The Terminator, were all apparently inspired by dreams. What’s more, evidence suggests that greater dream recall is correlated with measures of creativity. This could simply be because creative people remember their dreams better (maybe finding them more interesting). To show that dream recall actually benefits creativity you really need an experimental setup, which is just what Mauricio Sierra-Siegert and his team at the Colegiatura Colombiana attempted.

The researchers asked their undergraduate sample to twice complete a measure of creativity, 27 days apart. The measure, the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking, involves working ambiguous visual fragments into full pictures, which judges then rate for their creative content. For example, someone might work a couple of isolated curves into the number eight, a snowman, or an intricate snaking hydra with faces depicting different political figures.

In the days between the assessments, 55 of the participants spent time each morning writing up the dream content they could remember from the night before. A 32-strong control group wrote instead about a vivid event from the previous day.

At the beginning and end of the study, the participants also reported how often they remembered their dreams. Those in the dream condition who started out remembering the fewest dreams – the bottom third of the group – showed an increase, from remembering one dream a month to one a week on average, suggesting that the dream diary exercise had been effective (the lowest scorers on dream recall in the control group also showed an increase during the course of the study, perhaps due to “regression to the mean”, but their increase was not as great as that shown by participants in the dream condition).

Did keeping a dream diary lead to a creativity boost? The Torrance test of creativity can be scored in terms of “raw” features like the volume of ideas, degree of extra details, and abstractness of titles of the drawings, and although the dream loggers showed an improvement in these raw scores, so did the control group (and indeed, so too did a third, non-intervention group who simply took the test twice, suggesting a benefit to performance owing simply to practice).

But the test can also be scored by evaluating more closely the content of the images, rating qualities such as the degree of emotional expressiveness, presence of narrative to the imagery, humour, richness of imagery and presence of fantasy. These are the sort of creative elements commonly associated with dreams, and indeed, the dream-logging participants showed improvements in their creative content scores whereas the control participants did not.

By repeatedly bringing their waking-state attention back to the workings of dream consciousness, Sierra-Siegert and his colleagues suggest the participants in the dream diary condition were encouraging a “cross-fertilization” between the two modes, making more accessible the creative leaps and elaboration common to dreams. Repeated referral to dream content similarly characterised the explorative leaps of the surrealists, and many of our most distinctive film-makers, from David Lynch to Christopher Nolan, blend or explore elements across these boundaries to create their work. If you desire to be creative along these lines, it seems worth paying attention to what your dream life has to offer.