Scientific American has an interesting interview with Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists, and Athletes Use their Dreams for Creative Problem Solving-and How You Can Too
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.