On Problem Solving in Dreams

By Radosław Miernik · Published on · Updated on

Table of contents


Have you ever been stuck on a problem for hours, days or even weeks? It’s infuriating, right? You start looking for similar ones, try different approaches, and maybe ask around… And then, the solution comes to you out of nowhere! Usually in a shower, while pondering which cereal box you want to grab or the moment you wake up.

It feels like your brain is solving it “in the background”, right? I wanted to know more about this topic, but it seems like there’s nothing to sustain my claims1. However, it looks like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman once again came to my attention.

As a person who has had vivid dreams since ever, I kept thinking about whether I could use them to help me. That’s how my experiment began – I decided to write down all of my dreams that I could remember.

First nights

As the Murphy’s law goes, the moment I wanted to have more dreams I had none for a week. Then, again, for about a week, I remembered that I had some but couldn’t remember anything sensible.

Suddenly, a breakthrough! I woke up roughly a quarter before the alarm went off and wrote down my first note. It’s ~1500 characters long and would make a decent scenario for a short action movie. (My usual dream scenario.)

The next few dreams were quite similar, but my writing got better over time. Fewer mistakes, fewer incoherent sentences, more details. It took me roughly five times to reach a state where I felt like it finally made sense. I kept going.

Notes analysis

Each dream note is roughly the same length, but they vary in virtually every other sense – duration, ending (positive, negative, etc.), number of people, and even the language that was used in it. No leading motif either.

Then, I started thinking about a correlation between the dreams and what was going on in my life. I often heard that people’s anxieties and phobias often come up in various forms (monsters, people chasing you, etc.), but that isn’t the case for me.

In the end, I didn’t find any connection, but maybe it’s just somewhere deeper in my subconscious, or simply more samples are needed. Or I need to start working on lucid dreaming, as it seems that some of my friends managed to achieve it.

Closing thoughts

Did my problem solving improve? Well, not really. But I do feel more rested each morning and maybe a tad more creative, though I can’t put a number on it. The only difference is that I no longer have a situation where I feel like I dreamt about something but couldn’t remember anything.

The experiment continues.


It turned out my friend Wojciech was interested in this topic far more than me and actually spent some time researching it. He put it in a blog post, and I highly recommend you check out The Creative Act of Software Development.