You Were In My Dream Last Night
One minute you’re walking casually along the street carrying a talking watermelon; the next you’re hover-flying through your former school building anxiously searching for something indefinable. Perhaps you’re suddenly and inexplicably naked in the middle of a house party packed with fully-clothed work colleagues, but no-one has seemed to notice except you, or your adrenaline is pumping because you can’t find your boss anywhere for an important meeting.
It’s incredible how we have normalized the nightly carnival in our heads we call dreams. For around two hours per night (on average), our regular waking worlds are literally turned upside down in a kaleidoscopic riot of surreal dream imagery that can leave us confused, bemused—and sometimes genuinely distressed or emotional. And yet we hardly question it: so just what the hell are dreams?
It’s easy to understand how the ancients considered them messages from the gods or prophetic visions of the future. Freud and Jung thought they were expressions of suppressed desires, subconscious wishes, or archetypes of the human psyche. “Nah,” modern scientists say, “dreams are simply a byproduct of our overstimulated brains—sort of like psychedelic outpouring of all the stuff we absorb sensorially during the day, but don’t need.”
Ever used tarot cards to help with a strategy meeting?
And there’s still some discord amid “the dream scene” today. On one side you’ve got the sleep researchers, psychologists, and neuroscientists who compare the human brain to a computer hard drive wherein dreams serve as “data processing,” clean-up operations that give us cognitive benefits like memory improvement and problem-solving capabilities.
On the other side are the descendents of Freud and Jung, whose deep dives into the subconscious remain popular with proponents of dream analysis and related esoterica such as tarot, astrology, and oneiromancy (predicting the future via dreams). While this kind of interest is dismissed as woo-woo by some, for others they can offer a useful set of interpretive tools: ever thought about using tarot cards to help with a strategy meeting? Drawn on the I Ching to solve a personal dilemma in the workplace? Employed astrology for personal branding?
Dreams don’t just stay in our heads, either. They have a formidable way of erupting into the real world, particularly in the realms of art and culture. You only have to read a novel like Alice in Wonderland, immerse yourself in a Salvador Dalí painting, or watch a movie by David Lynch to witness the power of dreams on our collective waking consciousness.
Dreams have spilled over into the realms of science and technology, too. While the plot of Frankenstein and The Beatles’ song “Yesterday” were directly inspired by dreams, so was the discovery of DNA, the Theory of Relativity, the Periodic Table, and the structure of the atom.
Your anxiety dream can be the next Google
In the 1990s, a Stanford graduate student had an anxiety dream that involved downloading the entire World Wide Web and just keeping the links. In the morning he wrote down the algorithm. The student was Larry Page. The company he went on to found was Google.
Obviously we can’t all have such prophetic visions when we sleep, but we can still harness the radically imaginative or even illogical aspects of dreams for business. Research has shown that dreaming is directly connected to problem solving, as our neurons help us detect new connections between formerly unrelated ideas, leading to nerdy terms like “cognitive disinhibition” and “dream incubation.” Ideal for casually sprinkling into your next blue-sky brainstorming session, for sure; but what do they actually mean?
“Cognitive disinhibition,” a term created by Harvard researcher Shelley Carson, is based on the idea that our conscious brains automatically filter out any sensual data we don’t need for practical purposes or survival. But the parts of the brain that usually restrict our thinking to the logical and familiar have been found to be less active during REM sleep, suggesting that dreams are what happens when those filters are switched off and our brains allow ALL the information to flow—regardless of whether it’s relevant or not.
This opens up a great deal of creative potential, especially when combined with “dream incubation,” whereby we can train our brains to focus our dreams to quickly solve minor problems; even specific memories can be targeted in order to improve the performance of skill learning and spatial navigation. Best of all, we don’t need to have our brains wired up in a lab or wear a sleep tracker. The process Carson suggests is simple and accessible to everyone:
1. Write down your problem as a brief phrase or sentence, and place this note next to your bed. Also keep a pen and paper—and perhaps a flashlight—alongside it.
2. Review the problem for a few minutes before going to bed.
3. Once in bed, visualize the problem as a concrete image, if possible.
4. Tell yourself you want to dream about the problem as you drift off to sleep.
5. On awakening, lie quietly before getting out of bed. Note whether you recall any trace of a dream and try to invite more of the dream to return. Write it down.
For a more elaborate process, add the following steps:
6. At bedtime, picture yourself dreaming about the problem, awakening and writing on your bedside notepad.
7. Arrange objects connected to the problem on your night table or on the wall across from your bed.
Tech dreams going full meta
Just as dreams can influence reality, technology has been taking us further into the alternative universes that dreams represent. Indeed, Big Tech has become increasingly enamored with dreams in the realms of artificial intelligence, virtual reality, hologram technology, and augmented reality.
Google has come full circle from Page’s early vision with its Deep Dream Generator, a tool to help scientists and engineers understand what a deep neural network is seeing when looking at a given image. Following prompts, Google’s machines transform regular images into hallucinogenic artworks that have a dreamlike quality: the kind of thing you might expect if you fed the machines ayahuasca or psilocybin.
This technology has given rise to a swathe of AI-powered art generators—DALL·E and MidJourney, Wombo, and Microsoft’s NUWA-Infinity—all of which are proving highly useful for businesses and media.
But why stop there? The German Romantics famously described dreaming as a Zweite Welt, or “Second World,” and with the chances that we live in a dream-like simulation apparently around 50%, it seems too exciting not to explore the idea. A couple of decades ago we were presented with the 3D Virtual World of Second Life; now we have the metaverse.
And yep, Elon Musk
Elon Musk, as always, has his own ideas. An outspoken critic of the metaverse (“strapping a frigging screen to their face all day and not wanting to ever leave…no way”), his preferred technological escape is via a chip surgically implanted into the brain—courtesy, of course, of Neuralink, the brain-computer interface company he co-founded.
And it’s not just Big Tech exploring dreams. Regular businesses are open to the powerful overlaps between dreams and business, with lucid dreaming becoming increasingly popular as a strategy. US-based entrepreneur Jody Clower says she regularly brainstorms during her lucid dreams; she came up with the name for her property tech startup Nestiny during one experience. Choreographer Jade Shaw also had the idea for her small business ParkourDance in 2012 after brainstorming the idea during a lucid dream.
Lucid dreaming highlights the role unconsciousness plays in the decisions we make about our life—and neuroscientist Hannah Critchlow thinks it’s a really big one. But if we admit that lucid dreaming is a state of consciousness, so is any physical state, argues the philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers, who explores the role of consciousness in the physical world and in the rapid development of virtual realities. Wait and see, he says: in a century these virtual worlds will be indistinguishable from our “actual” ones. Most probably with thinking machines, whose consciousness can be studied in parallel with infants and animals, as Claudia Passos-Fereira does.
And then there are the kinds of dreams that motivate us, quite lucidly, to work for a better world and improved communities. NFT artist and activist Maliha Abidi wants to use NFTs to raise awareness and promote empowerment, diversity, and inclusion, and to adopt the metaverse for accessible education. Akhila Kosaraju, CEO of Phare BIO, dreams of using AI and deep learning to tackle the world’s most urgent threats, including antibiotic discovery. Claus Sendlinger, founder of Design Hotels and Slow, dreams of creating authentic and holistic experiences for people. Julia Mande, managing director of North Star Project, seeks to guide the emerging psychedelics ecosystem towards values-based and community-led principles.
What’s common for all of these dreamers, apart from the fact that they’re using dreams to bolster their businesses? They will all be present at our next annual gathering, The___Dream, a real-life dreamscape gathering in the mystical hills of Sintra on June 2-5, 2023. A unique kind of experience featuring all of these stellar minds, and others, like TED global curator Bruno Giussani, author and founder of Box of Crayons and MBS Works, Michael Bungay Stanier, video game lawyer Micaela Mantegna, philosopher Bayo Akomolafe, psychoanalyst and work futurist Gabriella Braun, nuclear disarmament dream Sharon Dolev and Emad Kiyaei, and microbiologist Colin Averill—and these are just the first confirmed speakers.
Join us to meet them and dream together in a villa overlooking the Atlantic and the forests known in the ancient world as Lunae Mons, “the mountains of the Moon,” the legendary retreat of Diana the Huntress, aka Cynthia among the Romans, hence “Çintra.” You’ll be sure to have a distinct feeling of hallucinating, in the best sense.
Impatient to soak into this dream?