Dreams and Creative Problem Solving

The French Surrealist poet, St. Paul Boux, would hang a sign on his bedroom door before retiring which read: “Poet at work.” A similar belief in nocturnal productivity was expressed by John Steinbeck: “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”

I took the title of one of my books, The Committee of Sleep, from that quote because it sums up nature of the unconscious generally and dreams specifically so well. The unconscious is not one type of thinking, but rather any part of self that’s not conscious – and these can all show up in dreams.

In the most famous example of creative problem solving in a dream, the chemist Kekulé reported that his Nobel-prize winning realization of the structure of the benzene molecule as hexagonal rather than straight came after dreaming of a snake, made of atoms, reaching around and grasping its tail in its mouth. Mendeleev described dreaming the periodic table of the elements in its completed form. The Nobel-prize winning experiment demonstrating the chemical transmission of nerve impulses to a frog’s heart was conceived by Otto Loewi in a dream.

Devices as varied as Elias Howe’s sewing machine needle – with the hole at the pointed end – and J. B. Parkinson’s computer-controlled anti-aircraft gun are credited by their inventors to dreams. William Blake described being told by his dead brother in a dream about a new way to engrave his illustrated songs, which he found worked well. Robert Lewis Stevenson dreamed the two key scenes of his novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as did Mary Shelley for Frakenstein. Music pieces which were heard by their composers in dreams include everything from a Beethoven sonata to Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday.” Billy Joel has said all his music comes to him in dreams. In the world of sports, acrobat Tito Gaona became the first person ever to perform the “double-double” – a double forward somersault with two full side turns executed at the same time – after he experienced himself doing it in a dream. Jack Nicklaus credited a crucial improvement in his golf game to dreaming of a new way to grasp his club.

Ancient warriors sometimes looked to their dreams for strategies, and during World War II General George Patton awakened his secretary repeatedly to dictate battle plans he’d just seen in a dream. In the Battle of the Bulge, he carried out a surprise attack on German troops as they prepared for an offensive against allies on Christmas Day just as he’d dreamed it.

But dreams have also served the cause of peace. When the British were about to pass the “Rowlatt Bill,” curtailing civil liberties of Indians, Mahatma Gandhi made the only appearance of his life in the legislative chamber to argue against it – to no avail – and he despaired. But the morning after reading of its final passage, Gandhi had his plan of action: “The idea came to me last night in a dream that we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal (hunger strike).” Thus began the campaign of nonviolent resistance, which ultimate led to India’s independence from Britain.

All of these stories are of dreams of extraordinary individuals. But dreams can serve the needs of any of us in our ordinary endeavors. No one untrained in chemistry is going to have a Nobel Prize winning dream about it, but when we know a lot about our subject but are stuck because we can’t visualize it vividly enough or we’re stuck “inside the box,” not thinking in novel enough ways to take the next leap in our field, dreams can provide that other perspective.

Many of these examples arose unbidden when someone was not focused on dreaming, but they are likelier to solve problems for people who are paying attention and explicitly asking their dreams for help. In one research study, I had college students look over an objective problem they needed to solve at bedtime (not surprisingly, a large number selected homework) and tell themselves that they wanted to dream the answer. In the course of week of doing this, one half had a dream on the topic of the problem and half of those – or one-quarter of the total – had a dream that solved their problem.

Try this the next time you’ve exhausted your waking resources and are “stuck” on something.

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