Solving problems in your dreams

One of the many functions of dreaming is to come up with creative solutions to problems, to clear the mist that baffles us before sleep, and reveal new perspectives and possibilities, even brilliant ideas.

Throughout history we’ve been encouraged to ‘sleep on it’, to stop mulling over a problem, to quit admonishing ourselves for our inability to see the answer, to turn out the light, and drift into healing sleep and problem-solving dreams.

Sometimes it works really well, and you wake up knowing the answer to the previous night’s perplexing question, or having new clarity on the problem and a promising array of ideas to follow.

You may or may not remember the dreams, but you sense that they delivered. On those occasions when you do remember the dreams you have the opportunity to explore the ways those dreams processed the problem to arrive at the solution. You can also pick over those dreams for added insight and creative twists.

Sometimes it doesn’t work at all, and while you awake refreshed from a good night’s sleep, there’s no sense of a solution.

In this situation, if you remember your dreams, you may notice they were frustratingly unresolved dreams of the type that leave you going round in circles, blocked, or getting nowhere. Aha, but these are the very dreams that are rich in wisdom about the problem. When you interpret these dreams you’ll discover what it is about your current mindset that is blocking or limiting your ability to find a solution to the problem.

Or the dreams of the night may not seem unresolved: they may have been processing other recent experiences, or they may hold unexpected insight into the problem, once you interpret them, giving you leads that prompt creative thinking and exciting solutions.

On wonderful but rarer occasions, perhaps when we’re unaware of taking a problem into the night to ‘sleep on it’, our dreams unexpectedly deliver creative concepts and gifts, exciting us to put brilliant ideas into action, to produce music we heard for the first time in a dream, to create a dream work of art, or to write a novel based on a dream.

The fascinating thing is that the problem solving that can occur in our dreams is far from a rational process.

The areas of the brain that control rational thought – in particular certain areas of the prefrontal cortex – are relatively inactive during dreaming. Dream problem-solving is not so much a result of clear, rational organisation of thoughts as it is of wild, creative, out of the box associations made possible by unfettering rational control. Sounds more like dreaming, doesn’t it? Some of those wild associations are dead ends, some put us back in touch with what we once knew but had forgotten (where we put the lost keys, a daft place our rational brain would never have uncovered), some stimulate possible avenues to explore, and some are magical who-would-have-thought magnificent new perspectives that inspire us into action. Again, we may awaken with these solutions and ideas fresh in our mind with no recall of the dreams that birthed them, or we may remember the dreams and be able to mine them for further gems.

We can thank the unfettered dreams of many a famous person for the creative ideas and gifts they inspired. Here are some well-known examples.

Our problem solving dreams give us one or both of two wins, each win from a different side of the coin.

The first win is from those creative dreams that offer us solutions from everything ranging from everyday problems to world-changing dazzling ideas.

The second win is from those dreams on the other side of the coin, the apparent failures, the ones that set out to solve a problem but didn’t deliver an obvious first light of dawn solution, the unresolved frustrating dreams. These can offer the greater win if you know how to explore and interpret them, because these dreams show you the make-up of your current mindset and the way that make-up is blocking you from finding a solution to the problem, or resolving an issue. Once you gain that knowledge, you have the power (backed up by using dream alchemy exercises) to rewire that mindset and fast track to a top creative solution.

You will have had many creative problem solving dreams in your lifetime, and you will have many more in the future. Here’s a simple one I once had:

It’s not a brilliant idea kind of dream. It’s a helpful kind of dream. It’s a dream I had when I was quite exhausted, although I didn’t realise it, and my dreaming mind and brain got to work on finding a solution to this problem. It’s an everyday personal dream that was half on one side of the coin and half on the other.

In the dream I had a bike but I was too tired to cycle. I heard that I could get a yellow device, a round plastic shape, from the local garage, that I could attach to my bike to make it easier to ride. I was about to cycle to the garage when I thought, ‘Why would I want to use energy that I don’t have when I could get someone to deliver the yellow device to me?’ I was contemplating, in the dream, how to achieve that, when I woke up. My waking thought, in that moment while I still believed the dream to be true, was that I could get it couriered to me.

My dream delivered a creative solution to the problem of my exhaustion: ‘Don’t expend any more energy, arrange to have the energy you need brought to you’.

The dream delivered on the first side of the coin, but on the second side of the coin was the fact that I didn’t awake with a clear idea about how to achieve that. Because I remembered the dream I was able to explore and interpret it and come up with some great practical ideas about how to not only re-energise myself but also go about the project that had drained me in a different way, a way that opened up to better outcomes. One thing I love about this very simple dream is that it caught the point where I changed an attitude, or flipped a belief where I had previously felt I had to exert more energy in order to achieve the outcome, to a new attitude or belief that was healthier, energising, and offered greater opportunities.

No, I don’t ride a bike in waking life, and everything about this dream was in the realm of the symbolic. Yes, I do know that the dream’s yellow device was a kind of dynamo, something my dreaming mind could picture but not name, just as I could picture, but not name, what I needed to happen in my life to get my energy balance right. A little bit of dream work was all that was needed to reach the yellow sunshine of enlightenment.

I love that moment as I fall asleep, those few seconds where I catch rationality fading, structured thoughts dissolving as I surrender. Like being asked by an anaesthetist to count down from ten before an operation, I get to about 8, but unlike having an operation where no time seems to have passed between lights out and recovery, I relish the dream experiences ahead of me and the fantastic out-of-the-box way they will dance me to a deeper knowing.


Jane Teresa Anderson

Graduating with an Honours degree in Zoology specialising in neurophysiology from the University of Glasgow, dream analyst and dream therapist Jane Teresa Anderson has been researching dreams since 1992, and developing and teaching dream alchemy practices that shift perspective and reprogram unconscious limiting beliefs. Jane Teresa is a multi-published author, and appears frequently in the media on television, radio, and in print. She is also host of the long-running podcast, The Dream Show, and offers her online study and certificate courses through The Dream Academy.

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