Is there a link between dreaming and creativity? There are anecdotal accounts of creative ideas in science, art, music and literature emerging from dreams. There are also studies showing that people who recall more dreams score higher on creativity tasks than people who recall fewer dreams. But, is there a real cause and effect connection, or is it just that creative people tend to dream a lot? Can you begin to think more creatively by paying more attention to your dreams? A recent study published in the Journal of Creative Behavior by Mauricio Sierra-Siegert, Emma-Louise Jay, Claudia Florez, and Ana Esther Garcia provides a tentative “yes” to that question.
The researchers had students from the Colegiatura Colombiana in Medelin, Columbia take creativity tests on two different occasions, four weeks apart. On each of the intervening mornings, some of the students received emails asking them to rate how much detail they recalled about any dreams from the night before and how vivid their dreams were in terms of basic sensations. In effect, the investigators were trying to get the students in this experimental group to pay more attention to their dreaming. Students in a control group also got emails each morning, but their task was to make the same kinds of ratings about a real event from the day before. They were reflecting on events they experienced, but wakeful ones, not dreams.
The creativity task was the Figural part of the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT). It requires people to draw pictures that incorporate an ambiguous figure, expand on incomplete forms, and make use of a set of lines or circles. The investigators scored each person’s drawings in two ways. One was a basic Raw Score based on several factors, including the number and originality of ideas. The other was a Creative Strengths Score based on the emotional expressiveness, movement, humor, fantasy, and richness of imagery in the drawings, among other ingredients. The latter score gets at the creative richness of the drawings produced.
The key finding from the study was that students in the experimental group did better on the TTCT the second time around, with significant increases in their Raw Scores and Creative Strengths Scores. The students in the control group, showed gains in their Raw Scores, but did not change at all in terms of the richer Creative Strengths Score. The improvements in the Raw Scores for both groups could just be practice effects from taking the TTCT a second time, because a third group of students that did not receive any emails also improved on that measure. But the Creative Strengths increase for the experimental group seems to be based on the intervention itself, since neither the control group nor the no-email group improved on that measure. The results show that something as simple as taking a little time each morning to think about the night’s dreams can boost creativity.
Why did creative performance increase for people who were prodded to reflect on their dreams? What’s the underlying process? When asked to report on how frequently they recalled dreams in the preceding month, students in the experimental group showed bigger increases than those in the control group from the beginning to end of the study. So it is likely that the increased Creative Strengths Scores for the experimental group resulted from starting to recall more of their dreams.
As interesting as the findings are, we still don’t know if thinking about the night’s dreams has a general effect on creative thought or if, instead, there might be a more direct connection between recall of specific dreams and their use for specific creative outcomes. The students were not asked to write out dream journals or otherwise keep track of the details of their dreams, only to rate their detail and vividness. Nor were they asked to try to make use of ideas from their dreams to help with any particular task. Does this matter? In one sense no, because if there is a general boost to creative behavior just from daily consideration of the night’s dreams, it doesn’t really matter which dream led to which idea. On the other hand, it would be good to know if and how simply reflecting on our dreams can be put to use to aid specific creative tasks. Until we have more data, I guess we just need to sleep on it.
Sierra‐Siegert, M., Jay, E., Florez, C., & Garcia, A. E. (2016). Minding the dreamer within: An experimental study on the effects of enhanced dream recall on creative thinking. Journal of Creative Behavior, doi:10.1002/jocb.168
This article originally appeared in Psychology Today.