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I'm aware of a few concepts, primarily from dream research, which indicate that dreams feature or integrate observed objects from the past several days into dream content.

For example, seeing a bike commercial can make a person dream of riding a bike; finding a molten piece of chocolate in one's pocket can make one dream of something brown and sticky. The colloquial term for this phenomenon is "day residue", invented by Freud.

Anecdotal evidence from my own life makes me question if something similar happens in the waking state. Do events from the past few days "prime" the brain to create new ideas based on those events?

Have there been studies that demonstrated that exposing a person to emotionally neutral objects causes them to come up with ideas related to those objects in the next few days? For example, is seeing art supplies more likely people to start an art project?

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There is some support for a short-term day residue effect in the literature, but no support for a more extended dream-lag effect.

Nielsen and Powell (1992) published a test of the day residue effect (incorporation of material from the immediately preceding day) and the dream-lag effect (incorporation of material from 6–8 days prior). Based on dream journals and self-reports of daily events, they found evidence to support the day residue effect, but not the dream-lag effect.

A short 2005 Nature article by the same first author provides a review of the literature for memory's general relationship to dreaming, and includes a very nice summary of the different theories that are in play right now (Nielsen and Stenstrom, 2005).

References

  • Nielsen, T. A., & Powell, R. A. (1992). The day-residue and dream-lag effects: A literature review and limited replication of two temporal effects in dream formation. Dreaming, 2(2), 67.
  • Nielsen, T. A., & Stenstrom, P. (2005). What are the memory sources of dreaming?. Nature, 437(7063), 1286-1289.
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