A recent survey commissioned by Staples, the office-supply giant, indicates that 51% of small-business professionals dream about work. Of those, 70% say that when they wake up, they turn their work dreams into action. That would have been a little difficult for Christel Hyden, whose work has involved planning academic conferences. She recently dreamed that she had planned a conference at which 1980s pop star Lionel Richie was to deliver a keynote address titled “Women’s Issues From a Global Perspective.” But, in her dream, Richie didn’t show up, and she had to find him. He wasn’t in Los Angeles—“That’s where I would normally look for him,” Hyden says—but in the Australian outback. And after a globe-spanning trip, she located him. “He didn’t put up a fight,” she says. “He came back and gave an unremarkable speech.”
But what she could use from the dream to do her job better escapes her. “I didn’t wake up and grab my to-do list,” she says. “It wasn’t meaningful at all.”
Dreams can come true. But if they stumble onto the subject of work, you can only hope in most cases that they won’t. When dreams don’t involve the final exam you never studied for, they frequently seem to be peopled by random colleagues and involve getting places that are never reached and doing tasks that are never done. And you don’t need Freud or Jung to help you decode another category of work dreams in which your psyche’s message repeats the painfully obvious: You need a vacation or a new job. Thanks, genius, for the heads up.
Carol Anne Buckley, a communications and training specialist, didn’t need to dream about her life in PowerPoint format to know that she was doing too much of it. But she did it anyway, presenting her life to herself in colourless slides. “Of all the possible media you can have in dreams—sight, touch, taste, sound—I’m down to Helvetica bold,” she says.
Similarly, when Anthony Lombardi worked at a brokerage firm in Chicago, he dreamed of a black office telephone two storeys tall that was ringing off the hook. He couldn’t dial out or answer the calls in time “because the number buttons were as big as Volkswagens,” he says. The dream told him what he already knew: “I had just been there for too long.”
(Jayachandran / Mint)
Even the Staples survey acknowledges that the utility of work-related dreams has limits. The survey asked where small business owners got their best ideas, and it found that 39.4% got them while driving and 14.6% while showering. Only 6.3% got them dreaming or lying in bed. Still, bed was more fruitful than brainstorming sessions (6%) or the workplace itself (only 5%).
It’s true that “a lot of dreams are so pedestrian it almost hurts to listen to them,” says Robert Stickgold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a consultant on the Staples survey.
But there is a growing body of research that indicates that sleep is a time when we can figure out patterns beyond our grasp during the day. In experiments Dr Stickgold has conducted with puzzles, people tested one morning performed better the next morning than they did if retested later in the day. And it wasn’t just because of the rest. During sleep, the brain engages in processing that explores connections and ideas in trial-and-error fashion.
“What’s getting activated are connections that wouldn’t normally be activated,” he says. The brain’s sleep activity may be “strengthening some of these and weakening others so that the next day you’re functioning in a better milieu.”
Your dreams may be useful to you simply as reminders that you need to address certain issues sooner than their placement at the bottom of your to-do list would suggest. That’s the case for John Reneski, who works in sales and marketing. “My subconscious is kicking me in the rear end,” he says.
Some argue that the utility isn’t in dreams but in sleep’s processing activity independent of them—and in the way you think about dreams. “The way you interpret tells you something about yourself,” says Jan Born, a memory and sleep researcher at the University of Lübeck in Germany. Dreams are like Rorschach tests, he adds. They “are basically always a report of a memory that is reconstructed while the person is awake.”
Roughly half of all dreams are related to anxiety and fear, some researchers say. That explains why lawyers like Anthony Laporte can have dreams that, he says, are filled with “witnesses who turn into snakes or juries made up of Attila the Hun clones.” But maybe a dream like that helps keep him on his toes? “It has never been helpful,” he says. Still, he worries that if he didn’t have such dreams it would mean he had stopped caring about work.
A dream’s usefulness can be ephemeral. Kathryn Tom Engle, a communications executive, once thought she had a good enough idea in a dream that she wrote it down in the middle of the night. In the morning, she says, she realized “it was awful.”
But putting dreaming about work into perspective, she notes that it bothers her more to lie awake thinking about work. “At least when I’m dreaming,” she says, “it means that I’ve fallen asleep.”
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