Dr. J. Allan Hobson is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He has dedicated much of his career to exploring the neurophysiology of dreaming, and has written many books on the topic, including Dreaming: A Short Introduction and 13 Dreams Freud Never Had. His next book is on creativity.
MISC: You’ve written that dreaming may be our most creative conscious state. That’s quite provocative.
J. Allan Hobson: I think its creative by definition. The brain is auto-creative. It’s a wellspring of creativity. What I’m trying to say in my new work is dreaming is not an escape from waking; it’s a preparation for waking. So if you are creatively inclined, then you certainly ought to pay attention to the dream state.
For the purposes of inducing inspiration, what do dreams do better than a normal waking state?
They invent things that you never thought of and that you never saw. Dreaming is not a replay of waking memories. It’s never that. It may include things that happened to you during the day, but most of what you dream, you have never seen.
I have a recurring dream about my farm in Vermont. I’m an absentee landlord, and lots of things can go wrong. And in my dreams, they do go wrong. So the dream is very meaningful in terms of my waking experience, but the farm that I dream about never looks like my farm.
I have a thousand different dream farms. So if I was an architect, I could learn a lot about how to design farms. It’s a fabulous opportunity for exploration.
You’ve written about how Dali anticipated aspects of the modern science of dreaming.
His painting, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate a Second Before Awakening, speaks volumes. It’s astonishing.
I’ve always been enraptured by the long-legged elephants. They seem so clearly to be dream creatures.
I don’t know that Dali dreamt about long-legged elephants. And I don’t know that his wife Gala, the subject of the painting, did either. I think Dali realized that he was using a pictorial metaphor for dream bizarreness. But I think bizarreness in dreams has distracted attention from the synthetic aspects of dreams. Those are the ones that are really interesting.
What has held dream research back is people are imbued with dream content analysis. They want to know, “What’s this fucking dream mean?” But the Freudian route of dream analysis is a dead end. It’s far more interesting to wonder: “Why do we dream? Why do we do this?” And the answer is that it’s a virtual reality program for the brain and the mind. You don’t go into the world and start taking pictures. You go into the world looking for things. And that in itself is creative. Curiosity is creative.
So even if dreams don’t hold any deeper significance for, say, decoding your childhood, the material of dream is intensely valuable for creative work.
It’s deeper than your childhood. That’s a trivialization of the subject. It’s not about personal history. This is the history of humankind. The ability to dream is probably genetically determined, since everyone can do it. So there has to be a genetic program for dreaming. It’s not as if you learn to dream in school.
How can creative individuals derive more inspiration from dreams?
Keep a dream journal. Put a pencil and paper – or better yet, a bound journal – beside your bed. Tell yourself before you go to sleep that you’re probably going to have about an hour and a half worth of dreams that you’d like to tune in on. And it will happen. It’s a kind of autosuggestion. If you just sensitize yourself this way, within two weeks you’ll be flooded with material. More than you can possibly transcribe. I started dream journaling when I was 40 years old, and I now have something like 800 dream reports: 162 volumes of journals.
And of course, if you want to play around, you can make yourself wake up during the dream – become lucid – and simply watch it unfold with the part of yourself that’s awake. Or you can change it. I learned to fly in dreams, for instance, after reading a book about it. You can do whatever you want. You want to design a house? Go ahead!
All of this comes packaged with the genes. It’s amazing! Everybody has access to this, not just creative people. What’s most important is to recognize that this is natural. It’s nothing exotic. It’s not something you need to do handstands to achieve. It’s just there.
This article appears in MISC Fall 2013, The Inspiration Issue