Sleep & Dreams

Dream Incubation: How to Set Intentions For Your Dream

Dream Incubation: How to Set Intentions For Your Dream

What is dream incubation

Dream incubation is a technique that aims in inducing a certain dream topic, either for fun or with the goal of solving a problem. For example, a person might go to bed repeating to themselves that they will dream about a presentation they have coming up or a vacation they recently took. The idea behind dream incubation is to set intentions for your dream content. You may have noticed that if you watch a scary movie before bed, you may dream of the plot.

Many times, the content and thoughts we consume before bed seep into our dreams. When we intentionally take control of what we feed our minds, we can impact our dream content and even select what we want to dream about! Artists and creatives have been known for using their dreams  to release blockages and creative brainstorming (Sylvia Plath, Salvador Dalí, Edgar Allen Poe to name a few). Paul McCartney wrote the melody for his famous song “Yesterday” in a dream. He spent about a week asking close friends if they’d heard the tune before, thinking he must’ve heard it somewhere before.

Sleep on it

The term “Sleep on it” actually has truth behind it. Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist discovered the Periodic Table in a dream. During his studies, he was stuck on how to order the elements. He kept arranging and rearranging them, noticing gaps in the order of atomic mass. Then, one night, he dreamed of a table where all the elements fell into place, woke up and wrote it out into the table we know today. 

While our bodies sleep, our minds continue to work. Processing what we’ve experienced and what’s troubling us while making new, uninhibited connections between thoughts. In a 1993 study, college students were asked to sleep for a week on a personal problem by incubating the dream. Even after the first try, half of them managed to dream about the issue, and a third found a solution. If you want to problem-solve in a dream, you should first of all think of the problem before bed. If the problem has a person or image in mind, hold it in your mind and let it be the last thing on your mind before falling asleep. To add emphasis on the problem, assemble something on your bedside table that makes an image of the problem. If it's a personal problem, it might be the person you have the conflict with. If you're an artist, it might be a blank canvas. If you're a scientist, the device you're working on that's half assembled or a mathematical proof you've been writing through versions of. 

One student from the study was confronted with the problem of arranging furniture in a new apartment and dreamed of a novel furniture arrangement that really worked. Another student was trying to decide which graduate school to attend and dreamed of flying over a map of the country while a commentator noted that it was dangerous to land too close to the dreamer’s hometown. The dreamer realized that it was important to leave her city and that felt right for her. Two students posed medical questions. In one case, the student asked about an irregular menstrual cycle. In the dream, the student’s doctor said it was due to being on a diet and heavier-than-normal exercise. The diagnosis proved correct in her waking life.

In the second case, the student was concerned about whether or not she had taken her medicine that day. The prescription called for one pill a day, with negative consequences for either taking no pill or more than one. In the dream, the person witnessed the circumstances of taking the pill that day. The researcher concluded that al­though there was no measurement of the quality of these “dream solutions,” it was clear that people were capable of dreaming solutions that were novel, personally satisfying to the dreamer, and reasonable to an outside observer.

Tips for successful dream incubation 

Don't jump out of bed when you wake up. Instead, wake up slowly and allow your dream recall to settle in. Almost half of our dream content gets lost when we wake up and start our day, or get distracted. When you first wake up, stay in the same body position focusing on the dream you just had. If you don't recall a dream immediately, see if you feel a particular emotion, the whole dream would come flooding back if you allow any abstract thought or feeling to linger for a while.

Another common dream to incubate is to dream of a person who's deceased or you haven't seen in a long time. As you go to sleep, think of a concise, verbal statement of what you want to dream about or a visual image of it to look at. A simple photo is an ideal trigger. Imagine what you would say to this person and visualize the conversation in your mind. If possible, try to watch videos of this person as you fall asleep to freshen up your memory. 

If you used to have flying dreams and you haven't had one in a long time and you miss them, find a photo of a human flying. Familiarize yourself with the dream environment you want to be in. If you want to incubate visiting Egypt in a dream, use Google Earth Streetview to view the pyramids and virtually walk the exact grounds you want to visit in your sleep. Study the environment as if you want to memorize it and imprint it in your mind. 

You can also journal and write about the dream you want to incubate. Write it in your journal before falling asleep. Write the dream out exactly as you want to experience it as if you are eagerly recording the dream the next morning. This will help manifest the dream and plant the seed in your head about how the dream will go. Visualize the dream you have created in your mind’s eye as you are drifting off to sleep. 

Dream incubation can take time since you are trying to train your brain. Sometimes it takes several weeks of focusing on a certain dream incubation before it seeps into your dream space.  If it does not happen immediately, do not give up. Continue the dream incubation techniques until you have successfully incubated the dream. 

Sources: 

Barrett, Deirdre. “The ‘Committee of Sleep’: A Study of Dream Incubation for Problem Solving.” Dreaming, vol. 3, no. 2, 1993, pp. 115–122., https://doi.org/10.1037/h0094375.

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