For centuries, dreams have been the subject of our fascination. Whether in philosophy, psychoanalysis, music or blockbuster movies like Inception, our relationship to dreams and what they mean and whether we can control them permeates through pop culture. But for one local student, fascination with dreams came from something a little more mundane.

“Like many students, sometimes I would fall asleep in class, and right on that boundary of wake and sleep. I would have really vivid, crazy dreams,” said Kathleen Nguyen Esfahany, a graduating senior at MIT and coauthor of a new paper with some fascinating findings.

One found that people are more creative in early stages of sleep, like when they’re dozing off in class. And two: That people might actually be able to train their minds to dream about specific things that they want to be creative about.

“For literally centuries, there have been so many creative thinkers, from writers to artists to inventors like Edison, who have claimed to find creative solutions in their dreams,” Esfahany said.

Esfahany said she’s heard stories of Thomas Edison sleeping with an object in his hands, so that as he falls asleep and his grasp loosens, the object would fall out of his hand and wake him up.

To learn more, researchers used a technique called targeted dream incubation. They asked research subjects to lay down and fall asleep and tracked cues for sleep onset — heart rate, skin conductance and muscle tone. Right when some of the subjects fell asleep, researchers said the word “tree.” Other subjects were allowed to fall asleep with no auditory cue.

The naps were short — no more than a few minutes. And when subjects woke up, researchers asked them to perform a creative task related to a tree.

About 70 percent of subjects in the group that heard the word tree as they fell asleep reporting having dreams related to trees, Esfahany said. Not only that, but they seemed to do better on the tree-related creative task than people who had not gotten the cue.

"For literally centuries, there have been so many creative thinkers, from writers to artists to inventors like Edison, who have claimed to find creative solutions in their dreams."
-Kathleen Nguyen Esfahany, MIT student

“The biggest finding and the thing that I think most people would relate to is that there was a nice effect of people being more creative after nap, versus staying awake,” Esfahany said. “And I think this is well-corroborated by a lot of other studies, but this was just really exciting to be able to see.”

Dreams’ effect on creativity has been hard to study, Esfahany said.

“It's hard to guide dreaming,” she said. “And so now that we have this method to guide dreaming, we were able to do that and show, yeah, if you dream about a tree, you're performing more creatively on tasks relating to a tree than people who didn't.”

If people want to replicate the study in their own lives, Esfahany suggested setting up cues on their phones or computer — one for saying a word as they fall asleep, and another to wake them up shortly afterwards.

“I totally think it says that if you manage to somehow guide yourself to dream about a certain topic, that you may have better creative performance after you wake up because you'll have some exciting creative thought about that topic while you're dreaming," Esfahany said.

The timing of both cues is important, she said.

“The sleep onset stage is one of the only stages where you're still super receptive to outside stimuli. So you want to make sure you're getting that cue before you're too deep into sleep,” Esfahany said. “You want to wake up right after or perhaps during the dream that has a creative content. We all dream throughout the entire night. But if you ask people in the morning their dreams, they can only really tell you a little bit, if anything at all.”

But the power to influence dreams should be used responsibly and consensually, Esfahany said.

“That's something that our group cares about a lot. In fact, we wrote huge, huge responses that got taken to the floor of the FTC when some company started trying to evaluate if they should use dreaming for advertising,” she said. “Dreaming is sort of a sacred spot. Many cultures really consider dreaming to be literally sacred. And many people in their day-to-day lives, no matter what their beliefs, consider dreaming to be a personally private and expressive place.”