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Your Brain Solves Problems While You Sleep

By Catherine Guthrie
The Ledger

A growing contingent of researchers believes that our nocturnal musings are subconscious incubators capable of hatching answers to life's enigmas -- a notion sprung from sleep labs where researchers peek inside the brain at rest.

The data is clear: While asleep, the brain is capable of doing things it can't do when it's awake.

Learn New Skills By Osmosis

When Lisa Byerley Gary, 42, and her husband launched a weekly newspaper, she was in charge of layout and had to use an unfamiliar software program. Now a writing instructor at the University of Tennessee, Byerley Gary reflects on those harried weeks and chuckles at how she tossed and turned.

"Night after night, all night long, I would dream about laying out pages on the computer," she says. "I literally went through the steps of placing the text and making it fit." In retrospect, she says, the dreams sped her along the learning curve. "The dreams reassured me that I was working on the problem while I slept," she says. "My mind made use of every moment."

Sleep is the glue that binds new information into the brain. Robert Stickgold, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, looks at the effect of sleep on learning and memory.

In one study, Stickgold and his colleagues taught volunteers how to perform a task. Later, the researchers measured how quickly the subjects completed the task. They found that people tested later the same day didn't improve. But when they were allowed to sleep for at least 6 hours between the training and testing, their scores shot up by 15 percent. What really surprised Stickgold: Participants continued to increase their scores over the next 2 or 3 days without further practice or training.

In another study, Stickgold had volunteers -- including five amnesiacs -- play a video game a couple of hours a day for 3 days. Then he roused them just after they'd fallen asleep to discover what was running through their minds. Sure enough, they were dreaming of the game -- and that was true even for the amnesiacs, who had no memory of having played it.

"It's clear that a night of sleep changes the form of memories so you can perform tasks faster and more accurately," Stickgold says.

Chat With the Night Therapist

Lisa Richmon, a 46-year-old advertising executive in Virginia Beach, Va., had a tumultuous relationship with her mother. Then Richmon's mother died rather suddenly from lung cancer at age 65. She reacted by dismissing memories of their mother-daughter disputes, focusing instead on her mother's best attributes. But she quickly began having recurring dreams in which her mother abandoned or betrayed her. Mornings found her with a heavy heart, like a weight that needed lifting.

"By day, I missed my mother and extolled her virtues whenever possible, but at night, I cast her in my dreams as unloving," Richmon remembers.

The dreams continued for 13 years, until she sought help from a therapist in 2004. In just two sessions, Richmon embraced the truth about her mother -- that she wasn't bad, but she wasn't perfect either -- and the dreams disappeared. The excessive emotions surrounding her mother also faded.

"The experience helped me really look at some painful things that I needed to examine," Richmon says.

At the University of Maryland, Clara Hill, Ph.D., a pioneer in dream interpretation, sees dreams as a key therapeutic tool. In one experiment, she and her colleagues recruited 60 people to take part in three different types of therapy. One group looked at their own dreams, another analyzed a troubling event from their lives, and a control group probed someone else's dream as if it were their own. During five 1-hour therapy sessions, the volunteers dissected the possible meaning of the dream or event and how it might apply to their lives. Afterward, they rated their satisfaction with the therapeutic process.

Hill found that those who examined their lives through the reflection of their own dreams were significantly more satisfied with the outcome than the people who just analyzed the event -- or tried to make sense of others' dreams. Hill believes that the dreams provided the key to fundamental issues that standard therapy couldn't unlock. She isn't surprised by Richmon's revelation.

"People carry dreams around with them for years and years, but it's only once they begin to work on the underlying issue that the dream breaks apart," she says. "The dreams you need to pay attention to are those that haunt you."

For his part, Kuiken, the Canadian researcher, is still spelunking dreams in hopes of understanding more about the dream-lag effect and how the sleeping mind teases apart life's tangles. Dreams help people to navigate through the emotions of life, he says. "When you look at it, emotionally significant events are just another opportunity for learning."

In Boulder, Fryer continues to view her dreams as treasure maps to her unconscious and has been tracking them in a journal for 30 years. She has taught herself how to incubate a problem in her dreams by focusing on it as she drifts to sleep. "Dreaming is such an intuitive thing for me," she says. "If I can just unearth the emotion that's hiding below the surface, I can figure out what to do next."

6 Ways to Mine Your Dreams for Answers

Try these tips to remember your dreams more vividly and make the most of their problem-solving potential

Start on a weekend: Dreams are best remembered when you wake without an alarm; that way, you'll likely wake from REM sleep, and your dream will be fresh in your mind, says psychologist and dream researcher Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center.

Sharpen your recall: Before you nod off, tell yourself your dreams matter and you want to remember them. Stating your intention is the first step toward enhancing dream recall, says G. William Domhoff, Ph.D., a dream researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "If you think they're unimportant, you'll forget them the instant you wake up."

Sleep on an easy one: Begin with something simple, like how to fit an oversize sofa into your overstuffed living room. Slowly work your way up to more intricate problems, like how to resolve a childhood issue with your sister. When Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, asked college students to solve problems in their sleep, nearly half of the volunteers who chose a moderately easy problem dreamed a solution within a week. But their success rate ebbed as the problems became more complicated.

Stay on track: Make the question the last thing you think about before nodding off.

"As you drift to sleep, you're very suggestible; it's a bit like a hypnotic trance," says Barrett. Use this time to conjure up your problem. Sum it up in one or two short sentences. If possible, put an object representing the quandary on a bedside table. If not, call to mind a clear image of the issue -- just make sure it's the last thing you mull over.

Write it down: Keep a pad of paper and a pen next to your bed. Upon waking, take a moment to lie quietly. Glance around the outskirts of your consciousness to see if a dream is lurking. "If a fragment comes into your head, gently follow it backward," says Domhoff. "We usually remember our dreams in reverse." So, like a loose piece of yarn, a dream may unravel if you tug gently on one end.

Keep still: If you wake up in the middle of a dream, mimic the body in REM sleep by staying still. During REM sleep, muscles are paralyzed, a protective mechanism that keeps you from socking your partner when you reach out to grab a flyaway Frisbee. Use this time to think about the dream and trace its story line. Give the dream a title before you open your eyes, says Cartwright, because when the mind is awake, it's more likely to remember a short catch-phrase than the visual images. Then write down as much as you can remember.

Famous Dreamers

In her book, "The Committee of Sleep," dream researcher Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., recounts stories of celebrities and historical figures who've successfully mined their dreams for gold.

Billy Joel: The singer/songwriter says he often dreams musical arrangements; he's gone so far as to say, "I know all the music I've composed has come from a dream."

Annamaria Gundlach: This artist found over time that she could design pots by waiting to see the next one in a dream. She observed its shape and size; it would usually be embedded with everyday objects such as nails and fabric, and she would faithfully re-create it. Her major traveling show was called Dreams in Clay.

Paul Horowitz: A real-life version of Jodie Foster's character in the movie "Contact," he's a Harvard physics professor whose passion is designing telescopes to hunt for evidence of extraterrestrials. When he's building a new one and gets stuck on a technical glitch, he'll dream he's looking over the shoulder of a man solving the very problem that has stumped him.

Frederick Banting: This Canadian doctor dreamed a way to isolate insulin and, therefore, make diabetes treatable.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: On a rainy night in 1816, Lord Byron challenged his houseguests to write a horror story. That night, Shelley dreamed the basis for what would become her best-selling novel, "Frankenstein."

Paul McCartney: In 1965, the 22-year-old Beatle dreamed the melody of the song "Yesterday." Upon waking, he immediately sat down and played it on the piano.

Stephen King: The prolific writer of grisly tales admits that he's reaped images from his vivid dreamscapes for his novels and short stories, including Salem's Lot and It.

Katherine Mansfield: An unusual dream experience became her successful short story Sun and Moon. It is an impressionistic tale seen through the eyes of a 5-year-old boy. "I dreamed it all," she said.

RELATED ARTICLE: How to Program Your Mind While You Sleep

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