A Guest Post by Ve’s Director of Art, Anthony Lewis
If you arrived here thinking this might be a dumbed-down sequel to Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, then I’m sorry, you’re going to be disappointed.
Still here? Good. Then let me answer the titular question… No. We don’t actually dream of sheep made from pixels. Or at least I haven’t personally. However, I have often found that my brain will continue web designing whilst I sleep. Or should I say, whilst I dream. There is usually an element of lucidity about this type of dream, a sort of awareness that there is a problem (from the previous day) that needs solving.
This is something that Dr. Daniel Erlacher describes as Dream Practice and suggests can actually improve your work.
“When people imagine practicing a skill during lucid dreaming, the state in which a sleeping person recognizes he’s in a dream and takes control of it, their performance in that activity improves in real life.”
Problem solving during sleep is something that most of us will have experienced during our lifetimes. So what does this phenomenon mean for web designers?
Coding by day, coding by night
The first time I noticed it was happening to me was a few years ago after several days spent coding, (I’m a designer, so when I say code, I mainly mean CSS and HTML – nothing fancy). I found that at night, I was dream coding. Not necessarily seeing the lines of code, but more like I was dictating it to myself and visualising the outcome – seeing the layout of a website manifest as I worked.
Surely this is like working overtime right? Well, good luck with that, but it definitely wasn’t a waste of time, or rather a waste of thought.
During REM sleep, our brain waves display similar activity to those produced while we are awake. Research suggests that sleep helps our brain to process information and memories gathered during the day, stabilising them and allowing for the identification of patterns within material we’ve studied – even when we don’t know the patterns might be there.
In 1865, organic chemist Friedrich August Kekulé awoke from a strange dream in which he imagined a snake forming a circle and biting its own tail. During the day he had been struggling in his work to describe the true chemical structure of benzene, a problem that continually eluded his understanding. Kekulé claimed that the snake in the dream helped him to realise that benzene’s structure formed a ring, paving the way for a new understanding of organic chemistry.
Now I’m not claiming to have redefined the way we write CSS, far from it, but there have been many occasions when a bit of dream practicing has seemingly led me to a breakthrough in fixing a styling bug or given me a clearer understanding of a website’s structure. This is never through one specific eureka moment, but more as a result of the extra work – the extra practice.
The recurring dream effect
For most of us, however, dreams are forgotten very quickly. This makes it very difficult to describe what exactly we gain and take away from dreams. To me, this reinforces the theory that we are benefitting from our dreams the next day because our brains have been practicing the skill, rather than desperately trying to show us a hidden answer that we can only see while we are asleep. After all, practice makes perfect, right?
I think we would all agree that if you want to get good at something, then repetition is required in order to develop that skill. Speaking a language, riding a bike, playing an instrument. It supposedly takes us 10,000 hours to achieve mastery in a field.
Well the same applies for web design. As web designers, we learn through experience. It’s an interesting thought that each night we could use the hours we spend sleeping to become more effective at something. Of course it raises so many questions about the unlocked potential of our brains and brings to mind the oneironautic theories addressed by Christopher Nolan’s film Inception – questions that I am completely unqualified to answer or merely discuss.
I can’t say that I completely enjoy waking up after a night spent sleep-working. In fact, when it first happened I distinctly remember resenting the feeling of being unable to switch-off. I’m not even sure how I feel about it now. The idea though, that web designers can learn subconsciously, is fascinating. And if you don’t agree, sleep on it? You might think differently in the morning.