How Our Dreams Sort Emotions And Unlock Creativity

Corey McComb

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Thomas Edison slumps down into a brown leather chair. Eyes heavy, brain worn. He’s been working late again. There’s a pile of blueprints in front of him and his walls are covered with books. In his right hand is a small brass ball. As the cold leather hugs his shoulders, he closes his eyes, loosens his grip, and falls asleep.

Across the ocean, Salvador Dali is pacing. His studio is a maze of canvasses and his hands are cracked with dry paint. He folds his slender frame into a bony armchair and slouches in. He dangles a silver key over a golden saucer and shuts his eyes.

Albert Einstein pours ink into a notebook, daydreaming new questions for which there are no answers. He lays down on a small cot in the corner of the room with a spoon in his hand and plate on the floor.

Hidden in the fold between awake and asleep there is a surreal state called hypnagogia. Composed of the Greek words for “sleep” and “guide,” hypnagogia occurs in the initial phase of sleep, where alpha and theta brain waves swirl together, forcing logic and absurdity to collide. It’s here — at the gates of slumber — that million-dollar ideas and creative carrots are dangled just within reach.

Edison, Dali, and Einstein didn’t fully understand the neurological explanation behind hypnagogia (we still don’t). Yet, they were each aware of the imagination superhighway that started at the edge of being awake and falling asleep. As they each slipped into sleep from their separate corners of space and time, each released their grip and let brass balls, silver keys, and metal spoons crash onto the floor with a bang.

It was all part of the plan: Wake up from a one-second micro-nap, ready to work in a semi-hallucinatory, hypnagogia state.

When Napoleon Bonapart was asked in the 18th century how much sleep a person should get, he said, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, and eight for a fool.” The Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “Sleep is for wimps!” And the fictional character Gordon Gecko captured the 1980’s business sentiment with three simple words: Money never sleeps.

Fast forward to the year 2020, however, and society is now embracing our nocturnal nature. Celebrities, athletes, and cultural icons everywhere list “plenty of sleep” as part of their productivity tool kits. We are armed with enough research and data to prove that sleep isn’t for wimps. And that, in fact, lack of sleep is disastrous for our health. In his book, Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker paints a nightmare scenario for insomniacs everywhere, writing, “the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life. The leading causes of disease and death in developed nations … all have recognized causal links to lack of sleep.”

Sleep, however, is much more than a health hack or productivity tool. Sleep is a robust part of life. As certain parts of our brain drift off, other parts wake up. When the conscious mind clocks out for the day, the subconscious mind gets to run off-leash. And boy does it love to run wild…

It’s our subconscious that guides our dreams. And it’s through dreams that we forge new ways of thinking when we’re awake. Our dreams mix new connections with past experiences to develop our ability for abstract thought and problem-solving. As the author, Rosalind Cartwright writes in her book, The 24-Hour Mind, dreams also regulate our emotions. All the challenges we face throughout the day — the looming deadlines, lack of parking, comments that didn’t sit right — they pile up and create emotional charges. Dreams diffuse these charges by mending them with old memories. Like laundry at the end of a cycle, our dreams sort, fold, and place our emotions in the proper place — ironing out the pesky details of the day before they become wrinkles on our mood.

Yet, despite the growing body of research that attempts to explain dreams, they remain one of nature’s best kept and dirtiest little secrets. All that we know for sure is that as humans, we each have a backstage pass to a world beyond our waking reality. A place to act out, explore, and defy laws of physics, space, and time. A way to visit lost civilizations, alternate timelines, and commune with the dead. Walking through the door of dreamy illusions each night is a sweet treat for humans. And all we have to do is close our eyes.

Edison, Dali, and Einstein were clever to set traps for hypnagogic wonder with silver spoons and brass balls, but what it really shows is just how dependent our creative brain is on the nightly hall-pass from reality. It’s the colliding connections of abstract ideas that happen in our dreams that the three men were chasing. It’s the reason musicians like Paul McCartney and Keith Richards sleep with tape recorders next to their bed. McCartney says the melody to “Yesterday” came to him in a dream. He woke up, stumbled to the piano, and let sleepy fingers make history. “I just fell out of bed, found out what key I had dreamed it in…and I played it.”

Another uniquely human experience that comes with sleep — my personal favorite — is waking up. When black night turns to blue morning and the wave of reality crests above our dreamy shoreline, we find a singular moment of revelry. The moment the late poet, Nathaniel Hawthorne called “the intermediate space,” where, “yesterday has already vanished among the shadows of the past and tomorrow has not yet emerged from the future.”

The ghosts of our dreams flee the scene, leaving a trail of hypnagogic wonder. We clench our eyes, desperate to step back in for just a few more minutes. Yet dreams, like most desires, slip further out of reach the more we chase. And as fresh blood flows through our bodies and pries our eyes, we feel our skin against sheets. We are brought face to face with a brand new day. Recharged. Reborn. Ran wild.

Sleep is more than a productivity fuel-stop that takes up a third of our life. Sleep sorts our emotions, takes our subconscious off-leash, and improves our ability to think creatively when we wake up.

To sleep is human. To dream is divine. And in the reverie of waking, we remember what it means to be truly alive.

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Best-selling author of 'Productivity Is For Robots' | I sprinkle a dose of humanity into overly-optimized brains with stories on life, business, and what it means to be human. Visit coreymccomb.substack.com to see my best work. Follow me on Twitter @coreymccomb

San Diego, CA
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