Why Ryan Gosling is totally right about keeping a dream journal.

By Catherine DiBenedetto
May 01, 2015
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While (your dream boyfriend) Ryan Gosling was directing his first film, the fantasy thriller Lost River, he asked his actors to do a funny thing: Write down their dreams and share them on set.

“You know, you chum the waters and see what you can get,” Gosling explained in an interview with The Creators Project. “I know that sounds kooky, but [a dream is] like a symbol to represent a lot of things, and it gives you shorthand.”

Gosling is on to something: Studies suggest that our dreams may help us process emotions and even problem-solve after lights out. Recording the details of your nocturnal imaginings can help you gain insight, says Dierdre Barrett, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.

In her book The Committee of Sleep ($16, amazon.com), Barrett recounts how some of the world’s most creative people—from Salvador Dali to Stephen King, and Beethoven to Ghandi—have used revelations from the dream world to inform their work.

The key to keeping a journal, she says, is writing just after you wake: “Almost half of dream content is lost as soon as you get distracted,” she explains, so before you even get out of bed, “lie there, replay the dream, then write it down.” Keep a journal and pen on your nightstand, or download an app to your phone and keep it nearby.

Her research indicates that dreams can be especially helpful for people who are struggling with grief. In a landmark study from 1988, she looked at the dreams of college students who had recently lost a loved one and found that during the early stages of mourning, their dreams tended to be quite upsetting. “The deceased came back to life and died again, or even beckoned the survivor to join them.” But after a few months, the dreams became a source of comfort to the students, featuring warm goodbyes, for example, or advice from the loved one.

A similar shift can happen for people who are having repetitive nightmares after a distressing experience, Barrett says. She calls the turning point a “mastery dream.” “It starts out like the nightmare, reenacting the real-life trauma, and then instead someone rescues them, or they fight off the attacker, or the threat shrinks down to nothing and blows away.” Rewriting the end of their story in their mind has a healing effect that carries over into the daylight, explains Barrett, who explores this phenomenon in an earlier book Trauma and Dreams ($34, amazon.com).

There is also evidence that dreams help us learn. In a 2010 study published in Current Biology, subjects were asked to navigate a virtual maze, then try again after napping or relaxing for 90 minutes. On the second go, subjects who had slept and dreamed about the maze during the break performed substantially better than everyone else.

Whether you’re seeking the solution to a puzzle at work, a creative breakthrough, or an emotional epiphany, writing out your dreams can't hurt, and you may even want to go a step further to tap their power. Dr. Barrett recommends a technique called dream incubation, which means planting a seed in your mind for the dream you wish to have before you drift off.

“For example, people having grief dreams or post-traumatic [nightmares] can tell themselves as they’re falling asleep that they’d like to have a different [experience] that night: A beautiful visit from their loved one, or a resolution to their traumatic event,” she explains. It may take some time and practice, but the strategy should work for any topic you want to reconsider in your sleep, says Dr. Barrett—from everyday problems to life-altering decisions.

Or maybe you’re just in need of a sweet dream—perhaps a visit from Ryan Gosling? Incubation could work for that, too.

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