I’m sitting at the table across from an opponent I don’t recognize. I’ve got four forests on the board and two creatures on the battlefield. My opponent swings in with his attackers, and I double block the biggest threat. He taps his open mana and blood rushes his unblocked attacker, giving it enough of an attack bonus to bring my life total to zero. Suddenly, I look up, and all of my friends are staring at me, shaking their heads. Matt asks me what I was thinking. Zac tells me I’ve gotta be careful when blocking his dudes. And now my boss is asking me why I’m playing a game rather than behind the counter? I’m confused, I thought this was my day off, I turn and see another opponent waiting for me. She tells me she’s been waiting for me to finish my turn for five minutes, but I wandered off. I don’t understand, I have three cards in my hand, they’re all mountains and I suddenly remember how badly I need a plains.

I wake up. I’ve had a Magic: The Gathering nightmare. But why? Why is my brain so focused on this game I play on the weekends, and, more importantly, what is it trying to tell me through a nightmare? A lot, according to leading studies on sleep and dreams.

“The brain is being modified while we sleep, so that when we wake up in the morning, in some way, we have a different brain. And it’s a brain that functions better,” says Dr. Robert Stickgold, Director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Harvard Medical School, in the NOVA special entitled What Are Dreams? I believe that when I dream about Magic my brain is making me better at the game, and Dr. Stickgold’s clinical studies support this.

The Gist of Sleep

Maybe I’m too surrounded by the game. I play it whenever I get a chance, I think about it often, and I work at a shop where I’m constantly looking at the cards. But also I dream about Magic, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that many other players have dreams about it too, whether they know it or not. Being so new to the game, my brain has a lot it has to absorb and consider in regards to play and tactics.

Even if I’m not specifically dreaming about Magic, a certain part of my brain (the hippocampus) is still working to keep me sharp and constantly educate me while I sleep. According to Dr. Stickgold, “When you sleep your brain will extract from experiences the gist of what happened. It’ll extract the gist and kind of forget those details that weren’t so important.”

The brain does this with everything we see, hear, smell, think, it will cobble together all of these sensory inputs and, effectively, get a feel for what we’ve experienced. In one of Dr. Stickgold’s studies (which he recounts in a wonderful TED talk) people were asked to remember and recall a series of words like Nurse, Hospital, and Stethoscope. The list was long, and many of these words were similar in theme. After being allowed to sleep, the participants were asked to recall what words they’d seen. Many of them recalled many of the words, but some participants suggested that they had seen words like Doctor, which they had not. And while this happened with some participants who had not been on a schedule where they slept in the middle of the test, a much larger group of sleepers reported these “creative intrusions” of similarly-themed words. This is because the brain, while asleep, is working overtime to cull a greater meaning from the experience. In my case, my brain is doing this with Magic.

I “remember” all types of events that haven’t taken place in my short Magic career. I “remember” making play mistakes that I never made. I “remember” playing draft deck combinations that I probably actually just faced. All of this is helping build my pool of knowledge around the subject. As Stickgold explains, my hippocampus “will foster insight, it will let us come up with those insights that are so critical and so powerful and so exciting.” I don’t need to dream about 4-0’ing a tournament to train my brain. I can just sleep at let my subconscious enlighten me with the feeling of the experience.

Bad Beats and Bad Dreams

So many of my literal dreams about Magic have a nightmarish tinge to them. I’m losing spectacularly, or I’m making huge play mistakes. Chess players often report seeing their play mistakes and pieces move around in their heads while trying to fall asleep and when dreaming. I believe this repetition of images has a lot to do with further strengthening the learning happening while asleep. There’s a documented phenomenon with Tetris (check out the Tetris Effect), where players reported seeing the pieces falling in their mind’s eye while trying to get to sleep.

The brain is so active it can’t help but think about things like this. Magic is such a cerebral game (even when playing mono-green, like I’m wont to do), it’s no surprise that my brain is obsessed with the timing, execution, and particulars of play. To quote Dr. Stickgold again, “This is all about the function of sleep and the role of dreaming in processing memories, that it refines the memory, it improves the memory, it makes the memory more useful for the future.” So I contend that the brain, consumed with the need to take experiences and make sense out of them, will focus on failure as it dreams in order to sharpen and hone its performance.

Dreaming About the Little Things

I don’t always have full-blown Magic dreams. Sometimes I’ll recall an image that reminds me of a card I’ve encountered. Or I’ll dream about sitting in the shop where I normally play Magic. And this is just what I can remember. Who knows how many swamps, plains, or forests my subconscious has trekked through.

These dreams that don’t seem to be helpful, though, are probably just as useful. “When you’re asleep the brain is processing this information at multiple levels,” says Dr. Stickgold. He conducted a study where participants navigated a virtual maze multiple times, with some people allowed to sleep between tests and others forced to stay awake. The people who were awake and participated twice, without being allowed to sleep, only marginally improved upon their completion of the maze. When asked what they were thinking about, they related the task to real world events and very tangible things. The other group of participants slept between attempts at navigating the simulated maze and those who dreamed reported experiencing many non-literal connections to the test. They heard the music that was originally played during the maze test in their dreams, or just thought about finding things in the maze, or thought about a bat cave. Their thoughts were not based on a hard resolve to solve the maze, in fact they were scattered and disjointed, but these participants’ scores the next time around skyrocketed far past their sleepless counterparts.

The combination of these three elements of sleeping and dreaming are actively working to make me a better Magic player. While my body is recuperating from a long day of living, my brain gets to work doing data analysis. In his TED talk on the subject, Dr. Stickgold summarizes the whole experience of learning through dreaming very eloquently: “When we’re talking about the meaning of our life what we’re really talking about is how this event fits in with everything else.” If the meaning of our life (not the meaning of life, let’s not get too big picture here) is to continually progress and grow, then perhaps we do the most important work toward that goal while we’re drooling on our pillows, dreaming of Griselbrand and Aurelia and Kiki-Jiki.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.