More than 150 years ago, Elias Howe invented a refined lock stitch sewing machine that would revolutionize manufacturing, but he hit a snag.
"He was stuck on the needle," says Deirdre Barrett, psychology professor at Harvard Medical School. He couldn't get it through fabric and bring thread back again.
Then he had a frightening dream of island savages threatening to spear him if he didn't finish the design. He awoke excited, because their spear tips had holes — like needles with eyes in the point — and the solution to his problem.
Our life is influenced by dreams whether we like it or not, says Barrett, author of "The Committee of Sleep." But she and other experts say dreams can be harnessed to solve problems (especially when we have to think visually or out of the box) and increase our emotional intelligence.
Our sleeping minds took the spotlight this summer as the film "Inception" grossed $283 million at the box office and asked us to wonder if someone else could change our behavior by entering our dreams.
Most of us think of dreams as stories that help process waking life, says Dr. Barry Krakow, medical director of Maimonides Sleep Arts & Sciences in Albuquerque.
While science can't say for sure, Krakow, author of "Sound Sleep, Sound Mind: 7 Keys to Sleeping Through the Night," says he believes that's true. "Life is multidimensional," Krakow says. It would be impossible to consciously understand all of it — work, family, society — as a single unit. But "dreams have that capacity to integrate thoughts and images." And dreams often do more than merely echo waking life, Barrett says. She points to past studies showing that, while bad dreams often follow bad days, it's frequently the other way around. Our days often mirror dreams from the night before. "I think dreams do set the emotional tone for the day," says Thomas McKenna, who does dream therapy at Life Change Psychotherapy Institute in Albuquerque. "Sometimes it's more subtle," he says, less a direct link than an "emotional coloring."