Working the Night Shift: Problem Solving via Dreams

Standing over my kitchen counter, contemplating chemical interactions between ingredients, sifting lumps from cocoa powder and confectioners' sugar and stirring. Whisking, pouring and baking. Taste-testing, note-taking and repeating, to get things just so. A typical day in the life of a recipe developer.

It's all fairly unremarkable, unless you consider this all occurs while I sleep.

Before you think I'm fortunate enough to snooze while an assistant does my work for me, think again. All those steps -- including (perhaps, especially) the troubleshooting -- take place in my dreams before they become a daytime reality in my kitchen. There, my former dreams are baked to perfection into recipes for my gluten-free food blog and for companies I do freelance recipe development for.

I call it "dreamscaping" and it's been happening with my recipe development for about six years and even longer than that for other aspects of my work like writing science-based nutrition and wellness articles.

As far back as graduate school, I used dreams to guide my work. For example, 25 pages into my master's thesis, I was not happy with the flow of the work. The transitions were off, unclear. I knew I had better writing in me, it only needed to surface. For me, that meant a good night's sleep and dreamscaping to get those golden nuggets to the surface of my mind.

The result? I woke the next day, pulled up that thesis file on my laptop and hit "delete." It was gone, no more. A bold move by some standards, discarding a paper I'd spent months writing. But for me, because I had been doing this for some time -- discarding written work, only to replace it with something far superior -- I knew I not only had a clean slate on which to begin with a fresh start on my paper, I had the copy in my head. It only needed to be "downloaded" from my brain to the keyboard. By early afternoon, the work was complete, transitions were singing and the paper was what I knew it could, and should, be.

So what is this hocus pocus dreamscaping I'm talking about? Well, putting all the shady pseudo-science aside, there is solid research on the use of dreams to problem solve in our daily lives. As a former behavioral neuroscience researcher, I know this to be true not only on a very personal level, but a professional one as well.

Researchers, like Deirdre Barrett, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and editor of the journal Dreaming, who study sleep and dreams have come to learn that at-rest brains are working outside the box, unlimited by our mentally self-imposed restrictions in thinking that plague our waking hours. That explains how I am able to come up with novel techniques and ingredient combinations to make gluten-free baked goods that taste like, or better than, their gluten-filled counterparts, but that are just as easy (easier, in many cases) to make.

And because our brains are designed to problem-solve, whether asleep or awake, we literally have all the answers inside. Just like the transitional phrases in those science articles I work out while I garner some z-time.

Reinforcing this notion of our dreams being more than just random subconscious musings is research that demonstrates our dreams originate in the more developed regions of the brain -- those governing our emotional behavior, learning and memory.

With up to two hours of active dreamtime per night, that's ample time to sort out life's little quandaries, be it a recipe that needs tweaking or a paper that needs editing. So, how can you put this dreamscaping into practice? There's no surefire recipe for success, but there are certain things you can do to set the stage for more productive sleep time.

4 Ways to Foster Problem Solving in Your Sleep

1 - Set a sleep routine.
Try to go to bed at, or near, the same time each night and avoid using electronic devices, watching television, or working in bed.

2 - Make yourself comfortable.
From the clothes you sleep in to the feel of the sheets beneath you to the temperature of your bedroom, get as comfortable as possible.

3 - Observe "lights out."
No night lights, bedside lamps or other light sources while you sleep.

4 - Set your intention.
Once you lie down, focus your mind on the problem you are trying to solve. Do not overthink it, do not look for solutions. Simply bring the issue to your mind, breathe deeply and drift off to sleep. Your brain will do the rest.