How Dreams Work

By: Lee Ann Obringer & Yves Jeffcoat  | 

Dream Incubation

image of 'heaven'
Another dream technique called dream incubation is when you "plant a seed" for a what you want to dream about. So if you want to dream about what heaven looks like, you would tell yourself that you'll dream about that before you go to bed. Kiratsinh Jadeja/Getty Images

Dream incubation is learning to plant a seed for a specific dream topic to occur. For example, you might go to bed repeating to yourself that you'll dream about a presentation you have coming up or a vacation you just took. Those who believe in problem solving through dreams use this technique to direct their dreams to a specific topic.

While somewhat similar to lucid dreaming in that problems can be solved, dream incubation is simply focusing attention on a specific issue when going to sleep. Several studies have shown this method to be successful over a period of time.


For example, Harvard psychiatrist Deirdre Barrett found in her research that it was certainly possible to come up with novel solutions in dreams that are both personally satisfying and reasonable to an outside observer. People have used dreams to solve problems with visual solutions and problems that require more creative, abstract solutions.

Ribeiro says that using the time before you go to sleep to set your intentions for your dreams can be effective. He says the following:

In the West world, people act as if dreams are something that happen to them. But among Native Americans, for example, people often go to the dream experience not as somebody that is being hunted by the dream, but as somebody that is hunting the dream, that is going after the dream. You have an intention. 'I want to solve a problem. I have a question regarding my family, regarding my work, regarding my most intimate problems.' You could, you should present those things to your dream as a way to seek advice and seek guidance. And this is a way to dream that is more aligned with with the ways by which dreaming evolved.

Throughout history, inventors, writers, artists and scientists have credited their dreams for many of their biggest successes.

  • Kekulé, the German chemist who discovered the structure of the benzene molecule, had worked endlessly to figure it out. Then, in a dream, he saw snakes forming circles with their tails in their mouths. When he awoke, he realized that the benzene molecule, unlike all other known organic compounds, had a circular structure rather than a linear one.
  • The inventor of the sewing machine, Elias Howe, struggled in 1884 to figure out how the needle could work in a machine for sewing. He supposedly had a dream where he was surrounded by warriors with spears that had a hole in the point. When he woke up, he realized that a needle with a hole in the point would solve his problem.
  • Mary Shelley, author of "Frankenstein," got the idea for the famed book in a dream.
  • Many musicians, including Paul McCartney, Billy Joel and Beethoven, reportedly found inspiration for their music in their dreams. Some hear musical arrangements in their dreams, while others hear lyrics.