with 5 comments
For many years – as long as I can remember actually – I’ve looked at sleep as a critical tool in my personal development toolbox. Sleep is so obviously important for overall health and ability to focus and it has always trumped most things for me… I identified at an early age that without sleep, my brain simply doesn’t function well.
There has been a lot of interesting research on sleep over the last couple decades. The majority of it has focused on the importance of sleep, yet through it all 1 in 3 people are chronically sleep deprived, relying on large amounts of caffeine to get them through the day… All the while, dozing off at their desks wondering why they don’t have any energy to exercise (further exacerbating the problem!)
So what do we know about sleep and how it relates to focus?
Mayank Mehta at Brown University found that during sleep, the hippocampus and neocortex actually reconfigure themselves in order to make sense of everything from the day. Your thoughts are being structured and moved from short-term storage in the hippocampus (like RAM on a computer) to long-term storage in the neocortex (like a hard drive) while you’re drooling on your pillow. Research at Harvard Medical School also describes a process called memory consolidation whereby sleep assists us in the absorption of new information. Robert Stickgold, Harvard Medical School assistant professor of psychiatry at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center says, "It seems that memories normally wash out of the brain unless some process nails them down. My suspicion is that sleep is one of those things that does the nailing down."
Sleep is widely recognized as a time when memories and new information from the day are cemented for future reference. It’s a critical component of learning a new skill or task, and it appears that without a good night’s sleep, information can’t be retained and likely has to be relearned.
Research (literally hundreds of studies) and loads of anecdotal data also show that the process of mental practice – or rehearsing something only in your mind – can help improve on a skill. Performing mental practice has been shown to be a significant benefit to performance when compared to no practice, and in some cases has been shown to be as effective as performing the activity itself. Sports psychologists have been using mental practice techniques for a long, long time with clients, and it’s become part of routine training for Olympic and professional athletes.
Given these two facts: 1) that sleep is critical and can help form new memories and strengthen thoughts for the future, and 2) that mental practice is critical to skill development and improvement, I’d like to outline a technique I’ve been using for over 20 years to turn this into action. The idea is to utilize the pre and post dream states to train your brain to excel.
Here’s how it works:
- Before getting into bed, immerse yourself in a topic area (15-30 minutes). This can be done in any number of ways, but the idea is to “prime the pump” for the pre-dream state. When I’m doing this to improve in the martial arts, I like to watch videos, view images, or read descriptions of the technique. The key here is to specialize – you don’t want just read about being better, you want to study a very specific set of circumstances so you can adequately rehearse them.
- While lying in bed, practice active visualization through the means of a story. This is what I’m calling the pre-dream state. Start off rehearsing your skill in your mind until you feel like you’ve “got it”, then move onto an uplifting story as guided by your mind. Visualize pulling everything together into a realistic application of the skill. Most importantly, picture yourself succeeding. Walk through your day or your event as you prepare to sleep, interact with other people, and make it feel as real as you can. Pretend it’s a movie and you’re the star.
- When you find yourself drifting off to sleep, start to take more risks. This may take some practice (it’s effectively the start of lucid dreaming). You’re now suggesting to your mind that you’re confident – that you know what you’re doing – and you’re going to have some fun with it. Since your rational senses will start to relax, strange things may happen as you start to dream. Just go with it.
- While sleeping, sleep… for 7-8 hours straight :) You’ll find that your dreams may continue down the path you’ve set for it, or they may go off in a different direction. It doesn’t really matter much. What matters is that your thoughts are now being configured and stored for the future.
- In the morning, while waking but still half-asleep, continue without moving. This is what I’m calling the post-dream state. In this state, mental restrictions aren’t usually applied. Since you’re still not fully awake, you can benefit from not being “boxed in” by perceived or real limitations that you would otherwise encounter in the real world. Things like “that would never work” or “but I’m just not good enough to do this”. You can usually continue to be in a dream-like state, while still having the ability to guide and think about your skill development. This is also an application of lucid dreaming and takes practice to perfect.
These 5 steps can be performed in order to improve on any skill, or just to generate positive or fun emotions for the day ahead.
I recently discovered that Ray Kurzweil, one of the world’s leading futurists, uses a very similar process. In his new book, Transcend with Terry Grossman, he outlines the process he uses for creative problem solving and invention. Reading someone else’s method, especially someone with Kurzweil’s track record, prompted me to post about this. He also discussed it a bit on his website:
By thinking about problems without those senses you can really find creative solutions to them. But what’s really effective is that period of time when you’re awakening. You realize you’re conscious and you could will yourself to get up, but you choose not to and you’re really still in a dreamlike state. It’s a period of lucid dreaming. Your dream can even continue, but you now also have your conscious faculties.
One of the advantages of this dreamlike state is that your senses are relaxed, but the disadvantage is that your rational faculties are not operating. In this lucid dreaming state you have both. You’re conscious enough to have your logical faculties but you’re also still in the dreamlike state where you’ve relaxed the restrictions to creative thinking.
In short: sleep is a powerful mechanism and lucid dreaming techniques can help quite a bit with personal development.
Give it a try and let me know how it works!