Dream Incubation is an ancient technique for problem solving. Ancients would
hold the problems in their minds (like incubating an egg) and sleep on the
steps of temples hoping for a dream that would allow them to enter the
temple and access the oracle. In ancient Greece, Asclepian dream sanctuaries
dotted the Mediterranean and people who had physical, mental and spiritual
issues would go to the sanctuaries and await a dream that would heal them.
Contemporary dreamwork has borrowed the spirit of these techniques to allow
dreamers to hold a wide variety of intentions in their minds before going to
sleep and then using the resulting dream as a creative response to the
problem. But just what is it that is so helpful? Some have suggested that
any technique that reduces our anxiety about a problem is helpful in solving
the problem, and that is how dream incubation works, through relaxation.
Others say it's the creativity of the autonomous imagination that offers the
best solutions. Who is right?
Dream Incubation Study: Is it relaxation or the creative dream mind that
helps solve problems?
The White-Taytroe experiment found that incubation was useful in several
situations and a better choice for problem solving than the relaxation
techniques they studied.
The technique was thinking of a question or concern related to a personal
issue, and to repeat that issue question over and over until falling asleep.
The participants had to keep track of their problems over a ten day period,
and reported on the levels of stress these problems created as well as the
degree that these problems were solved.
Dream incubation was found to increase the likelihood of a problem being
Interestingly, the study looked at how much the effects of expectation and
relaxation impact problem solving, and conclude that, in this experiment
set, it was something else that was occurring that makes dream incubation so
effective. Some subjects used the incubation technique AFTERWARDS - in the
morning instead of before going to sleep, to check the impact of the
incubation technique itself. As you might expect, those incubating problems
upon waking instead of for the dreams found they couldn't solve the problems
So, what is this something? White and Taytroe suggest that it may be due to
counterfactuals. "Counterfactual thinking involves reconstructions of past
events in terms of alternative actions or conditions that could lead to
different outcomes." (207)
That is, the process of holding the problem in mind may set up a condition
where the mind can begin producing alternative solutions, and there is now
empirical evidence of dream content containing counterfactuals.
I found it interesting that this theory of counterfactuals
corresponds somewhat to Gilles Deleuze concepts of the virtual and the actual,
where the actual is always surrounded by a field of potentials, and like in
Quantum physics, the actual occurs out of the collapse of the wave, or in
Deleuze, the collapse of the virtual, a fall into the real. Another way to look
at this is to say that all sense is surrounded by fields of non-sense,
which give it support. To the degree one can set up a counter circuit where
the actual also produces in the virtual, the general sensitivity of system
can be raised to include or be more influenced by its own potentials. In
dream incubation, this means that the focus on a topic will increase the
counterfactual field potentials of the actual dream or dreamer. Why the
big increase in counterfactuals in dreams vs. waking consciousness? Its
tempting to suggest that as the ego-actual enters into dream zones,
there is some relaxation of the factual and the field of the counterfactual is
"closer" to the dreamer. That is, when we are awake our environment
gives us very strict and concrete feedback, but in the dreaming state, the world
we existentially inhabit is more malleable and the proximity between
actual and counteractual increased.
We must be careful about generalizing from a single experiment. As White and
Taytroe carefully point out, this experiment gives strength the argument for
dream incubation in problem solving and weakens the arguments that its just
about relaxation or focus. But the study used just one kind of incubation
technique and focused on a narrow band of issues. In the White-Taytroe
study, only "Moderately solvable, moderately distressing" problems were
studied. However, this is an important study in that it suggests that
further research needs to be in areas that address the special nature of
dreaming itself and to focus less on peripheral issues.
Gregory L. White, Laurel Taytroe (2003). Personal Problem-Solving Using
Dream Incubation: Dreaming, Relaxation, or Waking Cognition? Dreaming
Volume 13, Number 4, December 2003. 193 - 209. Kluwer Academic/Human
Sciences Press, Inc., New York City
Gilles Deleuze (1994/68). Difference and Repetition. Trans: Paul Patton.
Columbia University Press : New York City