Grow brains while you sleep – How the dream state can facilitate learning

Yoan Capote Open Mind, 2008

Ever wonder why you feel extra tired or even exhausted after starting a new job, a new course of study or during a new or difficult period in your life? Or perhaps you feel frustrated, constantly dreaming about that mundane computer program you are trying to master at your new workplace.

Dream alert! It could be that your dreams are trying to come to your rescue!

According to Quattrocchi (2005), we engage in more REM (dreaming) sleep during periods of intense learning which could include learning a new program at work, a new language, adjusting to a new relationship or even learning lines for a play.

And during this REM state, neurons are rapidly being fired upwards from our brain stem facilitating memory storage and retention, organization and reorganization as well as learning and performance. (Maas).

Our dreams are literally helping us sort through the new information and transferring it to our long-term memory by learning and rehearsing the material during our sleep state.

In a study performed by researchers at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, 99 volunteers were given 1 hour to find their way through a complex 3 dimensional maze as quickly as possible. 50% of the participants were then allowed a 90 minute nap, while the others remained awake reading or relaxing. After 90 minutes, all volunteers were then asked to repeat the task.

Results showed that those who had stayed awake did not improve on the task with some participants recording a decline in performance, while those who had slept but did not dream about the maze improved slightly.

The most astonishing finding was that the 4 nappers that did dream about the maze in some shape or form improved their performance significantly with scores being 10 times higher than other nappers that did not dream about the maze.

Even more fascinating is that the nappers that dreamt about the maze did so in a vague manner that was only somewhat related to the maze. One napper dreamt only of the music associated with the maze, while another dreamt of people appearing at certain checkpoints in the maze and likening it to a bat cave he had once visited.

This suggests that dreams are essential for peak mental performance and don’t necessarily have to make sense or be obvious to the waking mind in order to have learning benefits.

Maas (1999) even goes as far as to say that ‘without the power of REM sleep, we would literally be lost, mentally’.

So the next time you’re studying for an exam or learning something new, give in to sleep and harness the awesome power of dreaming to improve your long-term memory, learning and performance.


Incubating a specific learning dream – a step by step guide

 Are you currently studying for exams or learning something new? This dream incubation is designed to help you harness the awesome power of dreaming to improve your learning and performance.


Step one – Decide

Decide that you want to dream about your current learning situation and what you want your dream to help you with. Ask a specific question if you wish.


Step 2 – Prepare the focus of your learning dream

Take some time to formulate an idea or your dream setting. Create a visual image such as a landscape, picture or symbol. Focus on this imagery, expand on it and allow it to become clearer.


Step 3 – Incubate

Leave your dream intention to incubate. Tell yourself that you will dream about this learning situation and look forward to any learning, memory retention, organization, wisdom, guidance and outcome the dream may provide.


Step 4 – Let go

Release your intention now. Relax and calm your mind, allowing yourself to drift off into dream.


Step 5 – Dream

Happy learning!


Step 6 – Record

Record your dream and take note whether your dream was connected, even vaguely, to your learning situation. Thank your dream for the learning and wisdom it has provided you with and don’t worry if you didn’t achieve your desired results the first time round. Be patient with yourself, willing to experiment and try again if necessary.

*it may be necessary to repeat this process over 3 nights. Repeat your learning intention throughout the day to saturate your mind and focus your intention.

Be aware that if there is a more urgent or pressing problem that you currently face, your mind will prioritise and offer insights that serve your best interests at that present time.



Maas, James (1999) Power Sleep. New York: Harper Collins

Nixon, Robin (2010). Naps and Dreams Boost Learning.

Parker-Pope, Tara (2010). Learning While You Dream
Quattrocchi, Marina (2005).  Dreamwork Uncovered. Insomniac Press, Canada