There is a surprisingly easy way to stimulate an intense phase of dreaming, if you’re willing to take advantage of the “rebound effect” of sleep deprivation. The rebound effect is a term for when a person sleeps longer than usual after a period of sleeping shorter than usual. The magnitude of the rebound depends on 1) the severity of the sleep deprivation and 2) the freedom to sleep without awakening after the deprivation.
I just had a personal experience of this process, although I didn’t exactly plan for it. My wife and I had seen a play the night before (the excellent “Astoria, Part 2” at Portland Center Stage), and I didn’t get to sleep until much later than I usually do. I had to get up early the next morning, so my overall sleep that night was less than 2/3 of my usual sleep. Not drastic sleep deprivation at all, but enough to set the rebound effect in motion.
The next night I went to bed at my usual time, but I made the mistake of not bringing my phone with me, which has the clock I use at night. I woke up after being asleep for a long time, and figuring it was morning I got out of bed, left the bedroom, went to the kitchen—and saw from a thermostat clock that it was 3:30 am. I didn’t want to disrupt my wife, so I went to another bedroom and buried my head under the pillows, hoping I’d fall asleep again.
I did, for another four hours without interruption, during which time I had a phase of unusually intense and dynamic dreaming. Most of my dreams are in the range of 70-80 words per report; this dream was more than 400 words in length. It had instances of all five major emotions (fear, anger, sadness, happiness, wonder/confusion), characters from three different ethnicities, a wild golden lion, and a fast-moving skunk. Suffice it to say, it was quite a memorable dream.
This is exactly what the science of sleep and dreaming would predict: after a period of diminished sleep, the brain responds with a period of enhanced sleep, which naturally includes more energetic and extensive dreaming.
You can benefit from this process in your own life, the next time you have a night or two of shortened sleep then get to sleep without interruption. The key is allowing your dreaming imagination as much freedom as possible on the “rebound” night, especially at the end of the sleep cycle, when the brain is most active and dreams are most likely to occur. If you can let yourself sleep until you naturally awaken the next morning, you will very likely be rewarded with a stellar creative effort by the inner artist who creates your dreams.
Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today.