Creative Dreaming

I came up with this blog topic in the shower this morning. That’s where I come up with the vast majority of my blog topics. Why is that do you suppose?

PsychicReaderI occasionally have psychic readings for fun. Purely for fun as I have absolutely zero belief that psychics are really psychic. There simply is no such thing. But I am extremely impressed and fascinated by the rare and marvelous talent of these people to make others believe that they actually have real psychic powers. I see them as a type of stage magician.

As in the art of horoscope writing, the biggest trick in being a convincing psychic is coming up with observations that are universally true but little appreciated, and seemingly specific yet actually very vague and generic. Then you make a lot of them and the mark will selectively remember those that ring true.

Decades ago, one particular psychic gazed deeply into my eyes and revealed to me “You have many of your best ideas in the shower, don’t you?”

YES! That’s amazing! How could you possibly know this quirky and intimate detail about me? The only possible explanation is that you must be truly psychic! What else can you tell me? Oh, you need more money to unveil even more startling revelations about where I’m destined to meet my true love? Do you take MasterCard?

But in reality  this is just a great example of a using a near-universal truth that we falsely imagine is something unique about us that no one could possibly know unless they have psychic powers.

Why is it that so many of us relate to this particular “psychic” insight? My theory of shower-thoughts begins involves dreams.

I suspect that dreams have a very important and largely unrecognized evolutionary benefit. I think that dreams are an essential part of our creative thinking process. In his 1993 book The Metaphoric Mind (see here) author Bob Samples summarized current thought about the creative process. He said that creative thinking requires that we alternate between “play” mode and “logic” mode in order to arrive at creative solutions. We must follow a line of reasoning logically until we reach a dead-end, then enter play mode and make wild leaps of free-association to find a new starting point from which to reenter a new logical train of thought. Techniques like brainstorming are methods for formalizing this process.

I speculate that dreams are a way that evolution has already hard-wired the creative process. Dreams give us a method for entering this “play mode” in which we rearrange the niggling facts of the previous day (selectively those that are unresolved threads of dead-end logic) and make wild leaps unconstrained by logic, by assumptions, or even by the physical reality of our real-world desk and pen and gravity. In the morning, our minds freshly brimming with “play” thoughts, the shower gives us the undistracted time we need to logically process them, to connect and rationalize them into something sensible, and to follow new trains of logical inquiry to unexpectedly new creative conclusions.

Shower-thinking isn’t very novel insight anymore. It’s now pretty well-known (see here), but I am not sure that the role of dreaming in this process is sufficiently appreciated. Nevertheless, this is exactly the kind of detail that a good psychic latches on to in order to establish credibility with an otherwise skeptical client.

The job of a psychic must be getting harder however. Even 20 years ago a psychic could make this kind of “reading” and it would be fairly difficult and unlikely that their client could learn that this amazing insight isn’t actually that amazing at all. If I went to a psychic today and they told me that I have all my best ideas in the shower, a quick Internet search would show me that this is actually pretty universal and quite well-known and documented. It would be clearly obvious that one did not need psychic powers to divine this.

But here is the important lesson. Even 25 years ago when that particular psychic told me this about myself, even though I could not easily fact check this particular phenomenon at that time, my conclusion was not “this person must be a real psychic.” It was “this phenomenon must be more common than I realized.” Keep that in mind when some psychic makes a seemingly correct observation about you, even if their “psychic impression” isn’t quite common knowledge on the Internet yet. Even if you can’t imagine what it might be, there is necessarily some mundane trick to their apparent psychic powers.

Lack of information and openness to magical thinking are the essential conditions for mysticism and fakery to thrive. Religion makes us more susceptible to other kinds of magical thinking. And some of what we are lead to believe through mysticism and fakery is not so harmless and benign as the entertaining insights of a $20 psychic.

So use your dreams creatively. Evolution almost certainly produced them to give you an advantage over your non-dreaming cousins. But don’t imagine there is anything mystical or magical about them.


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