Puzzles, Sleep, and Dreams

Puzzles and Dreams


Last night, I dreamed about a puzzle.  This has been happening more and more frequently, I think because I’ve been exposing myself to so many new and different puzzles lately.  That got me thinking about the different ways sleep and dreams might affect puzzle-making and puzzle-solving.

Anyone who has gotten stuck on a puzzle or other problem knows how helpful a good break can be.  Many times, if you just step away from the puzzle for a while and let your mind relax, you’ll come back with a brand new perspective that helps you move forward.  Sometimes you might even find the answer staring you in the face!  And all the benefits that come with a break seem to be amplified if that break includes sleep.

The amazing podcast Radiolab did an episode on sleep and touched on the subject of how sleep and dreams allow our brains to process the information of the day and make connections and free associations between all of that new data.  At 28:43, they talk about the purpose of sleep, and the “washing over” of brain connections that allows only the important stuff to shine through.  And at 41:03 they mention the story of a German chemist who found the inspiration for the structure of a chemical compound through a dream.  That segment goes on to ask “Why do we dream?”

If I’ve been working on a tough puzzle for hours or days, sometimes I’ll have a dream where I find the answer.  Unfortunately, I’ve never actually solved a puzzle via a dream.  Although my answers seem so perfect and elegant in the dream, they usually turn out to be nonsense.  But I’m still holding out hope for that answer someday!

Lately, I haven’t been spending much time solving puzzles, but I have been reading about Games and checking out a lot of puzzles from previous hunts.  A lot of these puzzles are very clever and are designed very differently from the puzzles I’m most familiar with.  As a result, I’ve been having a few dreams lately about encountering new puzzles at a puzzle hunt.  Again, while these puzzles seem to make beautiful sense while I’m dreaming, they usually don’t work out in the real world.  But they usually seem like a good jumping-off point for a more well-designed puzzle.

Another Radiolab episode tells the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde author Robert Louis Stevenson who would have incredible and vivid lucid dreams of little people acting out dramatic tales.  Stevenson trained himself to remember his dreams and write down the stories when he woke up.  Many of these dreams became the basis for his novels.  This story begins at 07:30.

It’s a very strange concept.  At face value, these kinds of dreams are the ultimate creative tool.  You don’t have to actively spend time brainstorming to get an idea, you don’t even have to be awake!  You can get some rest and gain some creative fodder at the same time.  It’s multi-tasking at its finest, almost like having 8 extra hours in the day.  But doesn’t that almost feel like cheating?  As the podcast brings up, was it really Stevenson who was writing those stories, or was it the “little people” doing the work for him?  How was it any different from him simply watching a play written by another author, if he made no conscious effort in creating it?

Then again, how is an inspiring dream any different from an inexplicable flash of inspiration one has while awake?  Our brains work in mysterious ways, and I would bet that the same data-connecting functions that weave the stories of our dreams might be involved in inspiring us while awake.  And in the end, it’s all your own mind doing the work.  The only question is whether being conscious or thinking with intention during that work somehow gives it any more merit.

I know my answer — I’ll take any creative inspiration I can get!

Have you ever solved a puzzle/problem or been inspired for a new idea in a dream?

2 comments on Puzzles, Sleep, and Dreams

  • David G.

    I often have such dreams, but rarely remember them. However, I think that even having the initial experience of dreaming something can subconsciously create inspiration in waking life even if you don’t remember. Inspiration is always easier the second time around! I often gain inspiration from other things in a similar way, such as music. Especially electronic music. A good beat or rhythm and all the tiny electronic sounds that accompany it can really paint a lovely emotional space, inspiring light or movement or interactions. I often pair this with dream information and visual inspiration from architecture or scenery consciously to create some lovely interactive spaces in my mind. I hope to apply this to some modding I’ve been doing recently in the Creation Kit for Skyrim. In any creative field, I believe that nothing you do is cheating. Even people who claim they create everything solely from their own mind or imagination are often forgetting these subconscious inspirations. It all comes from somewhere.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Well said! What’s the saying? Good artists copy, great artists steal! Nothing is ever truly original, none of us lives in a vacuum.

      It’s crazy to wonder how much of a role our subconscious probably plays in our decision-making and inspiration.. Another reason to not sweat it and take whatever inspiration as it comes, there’s no possible way to sort out “real” or “original” ideas.

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