So how can you problem-solve in a dream?
Although any kind of problem can make a breakthrough in a dream, the two categories that really crop up a lot are things where the solution benefits from being represented visually, because the dreams are so vivid in their visual-spatial imagery, and when you're stuck because the conventional wisdom is just plain wrong.
You may have heard the example of August Kekulé and the benzene ring, which represents both these themes. He was thinking that in all nonchemical molecules, the atoms were lined up in some kind of straight line with 90-degree side chains coming off it. Once he knew the atoms in benzene, he was trying to come up with arrangements of them that were straight lines with side chains and it just wasn't working. Then he dreamt of the atoms forming as a snake, eventually reaching around with the snake's tail in its mouth. It seems exactly related to the fact that the prefrontal lobes that control censorship are, on average, much less active during dreams.
If you want to problem-solve in a dream, you should first of all think of the problem before bed, and if it lends itself to an image, hold it in your mind and let it be the last thing in your mind before falling asleep. For extra credit assemble something on your bedside table that makes an image of the problem. If it's a personal problem, it might be the person you have the conflict with. If you're an artist, it might be a blank canvas. If you're a scientist, the device you're working on that's half assembled or a mathematical proof you've been writing through versions of.
Equally important, don't jump out of bed when you wake up—almost half of dream content is lost if you get distracted. Lie there, don't do anything else. If you don't recall a dream immediately, see if you feel a particular emotion—the whole dream would come flooding back. [In a weeklong study I did with students that followed this protocol] 50 percent dreamed of the problem and a fourth solved them—so that's a pretty good guideline, that half of people would have some effect from doing this for a week.
What about if you want to, say, dream of a certain person or about a particular experience—how can you do that?
If you're just trying to dream about an issue or you want to dream of a person who's deceased or you haven't seen in a long time, you'd use very similar bedtime incubation suggestions as you would for problem solving: a concise verbal statement of what you want to dream about or a visual image of it to look at. Very often it's a person someone wants to dream of, and just a simple photo is an ideal trigger. If you used to have flying dreams and you haven't had one in a long time and you miss them, find a photo of a human flying.
Image-rehearsal therapy has gotten attention as a strategy to overcome nightmares. How does this technique work, and is it effective?
Different people mean different things by that. The details are different but the techniques are very similar—they all grow out of the observation that when people are having bad, repetitive post-traumatic nightmares, a certain proportion seem to move on to having some kind of mastery dream spontaneously. The same way the nightmares had been re-traumatizing them, the mastery dream seemed to carry over into helping them feel much safer and more healed in their daytime state.
[Therapists or researchers] have the person work out an alternate scenario they want the dream to take, where they might ask them to close their eyes and imagine and generally talk them through a kind of vivid enactment of it. Usually the person incorporates some degree of the rehearsed scenario at bedtime or listens to a tape where the therapist or researcher is recounting the alternate scenario.
Barry Krakow does this in a group format and gets statistically significant, positive outcomes. He gets a remarkably high number of people who don't report the mastery nightmare and yet their nightmares stop and/or their daytime anxiety gets much better. We can't know whether they had a mastery dream and don't recall it or if something else about that positive, soothing imagery as you're falling asleep—even if it does not carry over into the dream—carries over into decreasing the number of the nightmares or the daytime anxiety, heightened startle response and flashbacks. In the one-on-one clinical studies there seems to be a much higher rate of actually having the rather dramatic mastery dream.
In the case of the successful techniques, what may be happening in the brain that allows these dream-control strategies to work?
Only if you're buying this idea that dreams should all be random or are being generated in the lower brain stem is there anything we need to explain about why you'd remember a suggestion you'd made to yourself for dream content or that intensely studying a problem before you fell asleep wouldn't be likely to turn up in your dream. Our ability to request that of ourselves at some point in the future is very analogous to what we might do awake. When it happens in a dream, it's happening in a state that by its nature is more vivid, much more intuitive and an emotional kind of thinking, and much less linear in its logic and much less verbal in orientation. That we're going to respond to this request from this very different biochemical state is what makes it such that sometimes we'll kind of respond but it will be in this vaguely nonsensical kind of way; other times it will be that we have this amazing breakthrough because we're thinking about this problem we've had this false bias about how to solve when we're awake.
Can we dream that we're dreaming?
Yes. That is the most common definition of a lucid dream—a dream where you know you're dreaming as the dream is occurring. A few writers on lucidity have chosen to make some degree of dream control part of the definition, but most choose to see that as a separate, additional element. Lucid dreams are infrequent—less than 1 percent of dreams in most studies—but they certainly do crop up in any large collection of lots of people's dreams.