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The Hidden World of Dreams: Discoveries and Problem Solving That Occurred in Dreams

“Without leaps of imagination or dreaming, we lose the excitement of possibilities. Dreaming, after all is a form of planning.” These were the words of American journalist and political activist Gloria Steinem, and while the kind of “dreaming” she referred to here might easily occur during waking hours, most of us can attest to the unique places our minds can take us while we sleep.

It is said that Albert Einstein had an unusual dream in his teenage years, in which he observed a group of cattle standing by an electric fence. The farmer who owned the cows stood nearby, operating a lever that he quickly switched, producing a current that shocked the cows. As the young Einstein observed in his dream, the cows all leaped back at once, in a uniform movement. However, when we walked over to speak to the farmer, Einstein (rather than asking why the farmer had chosen to electrocute his cows), asked how their movement appeared to him from a distance away. To his surprise, the farmer described a different scenario, in which each of the cows moved away from the electric fence one by one, rather than all at once as Einstein had observed.

Overlooking the superficial absurdity of the dream, Einstein began to ponder whether there could be a deeper meaning behind it. This, it is said, was part of the inspiration for his later idea that an event might appear differently from one person to the next, based on the amount of time it takes for light to travel to their respective locations; this idea would become a fundamental tenet of his theory of relativity.

At least, this is one account of a dream which is said to have influenced Einstein’s greatest discovery. In another account, Einstein dreamed he was racing down a hillside on a sled, and nearly overtook the speed of light as he traveled. Still other dreams the genius is said to have had, occurring around 1905, involved groups of individuals who were doomed to repeat aspects of their lives over and over within a circular sort of time-loop, and another where time seemed to be represented by a nightingale trapped in a jar.

Einstein is by no means the only famous individual whose dreams would lead to ideas that changed history. In 1845, Elias Howe had a dream in which the mechanical nature of the sewing machine was revealed to him, as related in 1900 by Thomas Waln-Morgan Draper:

[Howe] might have failed altogether if he had not dreamed he was building a sewing machine for a savage king in a strange country. Just as in his actual working experience, he was perplexed about the needle’s eye. He thought the king gave him twenty-four hours in which to complete the machine and make it sew. If not finished in that time death was to be the punishment.

Howe worked and worked, and puzzled, and finally gave it up. Then he thought he was taken out to be executed. He noticed that the warriors carried spears that were pierced near the head. Instantly came the solution of the difficulty, and while the inventor was begging for time, he awoke.

It was 4 o’clock in the morning. He jumped out of bed, ran to his workshop, and by 9, a needle with an eye at the point had been rudely modeled. After that it was easy. That is the true story of an important incident in the invention of the sewing machine.”

Countless other examples have occurred throughout history where great discoveries and inventions have stemmed from things experienced in dreams, which begs the question: what is it about the dreaming mind that is so conducive to creativity?

According to Deirdre Barrett, a psychologist at Harvard University, the dreaming mind continues to work on problems well after we go to sleep. “Whatever the state we’re put in,” Barret says of dreams, “we’re still working on the same problems.”

Live Science reported on Barrett’s research in 2010, noting that, “Although dreams might have initially evolved for a different purpose, they likely have been refined over time so they can serve double-duty: help the brain reboot itself and problem-solve.”

Barrett isn’t the first researcher to take interest in the connections between problem-solving and the dreaming mind. As far back as 1983, New Scientist reported the work of Psychiatrist Morton Schatzman, who also began to study connections between the dreaming mind and problem-solving.

Part of [Schatzman’s] research involves assigning problems (really brain twisters) to students, who are then supposed to solve them in their sleep. One problem posed asked the students to discover how to generate the remaining letters in the following infinite, non-repeating sequence of letters OTTFF … Seven students said they discovered the correct answer in their dreams. Another twister concerned the letter sequence HIJKLMNO. What single English word is represented by this string of letters? One student dreamed he was swimming but failed to make the proper connection.

Similar studies in recent years found some correlations between those with enhanced ability to recall their dreams and higher scores on the Torrence Test of Creative Thinking. “Associations between creativity, dissociation, and thinness of boundaries,” the study reported, “suggest that increased awareness to dreams increases creativity through a ‘loosening’ of stereotyped thinking pattern.”

Whether dreams are the source of actual ideas, or merely a forming ground for them through abstract thinking in general, remains in question, although seemingly the data would suggest the latter of these arguments. In any case, it goes to show that the seemingly random, and often nonsensical nature of dreams often does serve a deeper purpose in our lives.

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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