Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. —Carl Jung
My youngest son, the 18-year-old, has taken to wanting to watch horror movies on Netflix before going to bed at night. There is a severe dichotomy to his reasoning for choosing the last moments of the day to watch something that frightens the subconscious. He likes the emotional intensity of horror and suspense, but the movies give him nightmares.
Last night was a perfect example. I’m sitting elsewhere, reading, when I get a text message:
Why you leave me alone out here in the living room wanting to watch a horror movie?
When I didn’t respond quickly enough, he sent another message asking if I was almost done with my reading. He wanted to watch a movie, but was too frightened to watch one by himself. I stayed up to keep his mind occupied with other things while he watched some tale of creatures that live in the woods. Then, he had to watch something more fun before he could go to bed. Some dreams can be terrifying.
Dreams are strange beasts that we don’t understand in any great detail. For all the studies that have been done, scientists still don’t know why we dream. Neither does anyone really know why some dreams seem to have cognisance while others are nothing more than collections of random nonsense. If there was a failing to Dr. Jung’s research, it was the presumption that all dreams must have meaning. They don’t. Yet, without them, our lives get messed up in a hurry.
Turning Off Your Brain
Quick biology lesson: There is a part of your brain that, primarily, manages your impulse control, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). This is a very important part of our brain, especially when it comes to social skills. The DLPFC is that filter that stops you before you call your mother-in-law an old cow in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner. The same fold in your brain also prevents one from murdering everyone who is slightly annoying. We really need this part of our brain to work, and work well.
Care to guess what part of your brain gets shut off when you sleep? That’s right, the DLPFC shuts right down and takes a nap of its own. Actually, the entire prefrontal cortex takes a much-needed break. We work some parts of our brains harder than others when we’re awake and the prefrontal cortex uses that time to essentially catch its breath so that it can keep us from doing something stupid tomorrow.
Without the DLPFC in operation, however, our minds are free to roam. There is no inhibition in our dreams. All the creative mess on the right side of our brain, including the part that makes connections between bits of information, are allowed to wander at will. As a result, our dreams become full of really random and surreal thoughts as things that have absolutely nothing to do with each other begin to collide. At the same time, though, this uninhibited state allows us to find solutions that we otherwise wouldn’t consider.
The Upside Of Dreaming
Dreams have always fascinated us. As a result, scientists have attempted to study them for years with varying success. While there has been a lot of speculation, only relatively recently with the use of fMRI have we been able to begin to really understand what our brains are doing when we sleep, and specifically when dreaming. There are a number of different portions of our brain that are turned on and more active when we are asleep. Equally important, though, are the parts that stand down and let the creativity flow.
What may be most interesting is that we don’t have to dream all night to receive the creative benefits. Studies show that a good nap wherein we achieve REM sleep can boost cognitive association and creative problem solving by as much as 60 percent.You might want to let your boss in on that bit of research the next time you get caught sleeping at your desk (Ulrich Wagner and Jan Born in Nature, 2004).
Chances are you’ve experienced this phenomenon before. You have a problem to which you cannot seem to find a solution no matter how hard you might try. Then, you go to bed and in that foggy space between being awake and asleep the answer suddenly comes to you. Eureka! Problem solved.
Our minds can be at their most creative when we’re asleep, as well. Rocker Keith Richards tells the story of falling asleep on a night in May of 1965. Near his bed were a guitar and a tape recorder. When he woke up, the tape was at the end of the reel. Upon rewinding the tape, Richards found the opening of a song, along with an entire verse, followed by forty minutes of snoring. The song? (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.
The Down Side
Life can be cruel sometimes and one of them is a nasty disease that specifically affects the DLPFC. While shutting that thing down during our dreams is a good thing, losing it completely kills us. However, before we die, we can get very, very creative even if we’ve never shown an inkling of artistic interest or ability before.
The disease is frontotemporal dementia. There is neither a known cause nor a cure. Like many forms of dementia, the process can be slow and doesn’t present itself the same way in every person. However, one of the things that happens as the DLPFC deteriorates is that people suddenly develop a tremendous artistic interest and ability they have never shown before. People might suddenly develop an interest and ability to paint, or sculpt, or write, or compose music when they’ve never had any training or even any overt exposure to the medium. Their skills develop more quickly than normal because that part of the brain that tells them they can’t, or shouldn’t, is no longer there. The creativity flows unabated right up until the point of death.
Yeah, creativity can be a killer. I’m sorry, did no one mention that to you before?
A Happy Medium
I don’t think too many of us really want to die for our art. Being creative is wonderful and we love it when the ideas are flowing freely. However, few of us are willing to trade off longevity to capture a new photograph or develop a new style of painting. Is there a way to be so creative without winding up in a pine box?
Turns out, there is. We can actually teach ourselves to temporarily turn off the DLPFC so that, for a moment, we can experience the creativity found in a controlled dream state. The practice is most frequently found in forms of improvisation, especially jazz music and improv comedy. Artists such as John Coltrane, YoYo Ma, John Baptiste, and Steve Martin all learned to develop that ability to let go, turn off the part of the brain that says, “No, don’t do that,” so that nothing stands between them and the pure flow of creativity.
Not that such spontaneous creativity comes easily. Years of practice are involved. There are basics to be learned so that when the creativity begins to flow the mind automatically knows what to do with that information. When it works, though, many artists describe the effect as being in a dream state. Many don’t even realize that they’ve completed a performance. With the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex shut down, it’s like being awake and dreaming at the same time.
What do we take from this? Perhaps we need to take Kierkegaard a bit more seriously when he asserts, “Sleeping is the height of genius.” For some, that may mean breaking up our day so that we have shorter periods between dream states (aka frequent naps). For others, perhaps taking an improv class to learn how to let go of our inhibitions might be appropriate. Everyone is a little bit different, so each solution is going to be somewhat unique.
No matter which path you might take, though, the power of dreaming is real. Let’s tap that source and get creative.