The following is excerpted from The Transformational Power of Dreaming: Discovering the Wishes of the Soul by Stephen Larsen and Tom Verner, published by Inner Traditions.
Alfred Nobel should have won a Nobel Prize! Only there wasn’t one yet—he had to endow it himself—and mostly the world does not know that the inspiration for the explosives that made Nobel wealthy emerged from sleep, and in the middle of the night. And we will see that many of the great scientific, humanitarian, and creative inventions for which the innovators received Nobel’s prizes came through the dream portal.
Our first example chronologically preceded the institution of the Nobel Prize, and in fact August von Kekulé, who, as the founder of modern organic chemistry, and received many honors equivalent to the prize, lived in exactly the same era as Nobel. (However, early in the 1900s, Kekulé’s chemistry students Jacobus van t’Hoff (1901), Emil Fischer (1902), and Adolf von Baeyer (1905) did each win the Nobel Prize.)
During the early part of the nineteenth century chemistry had come to a halt—a seemingly insuperable enigma blocked the way. The periodic table of the elements, itself a gift from the dream cauldron to scientist Dmitri Mendeleev, had been largely articulated. As a result of his dream, Mendeleev organized the table to show the relationship between those basic elements—hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and so on, based on their valencies (their tendency to bond, due to positive or negative charge, based on electrons and protons). But there lay a great unknown beyond—organic compounds: the stuff of living matter, the missing link between chemistry and biology—that still lay shrouded in mystery. For example, the compounds urea and ammonium cyanate each contained equal amounts of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and nitrogen atoms (in the ratio: 1:4:1:2) but had extremely different chemical properties. Why?
Chemists, around this time “were working in the dark,” suggests science writer Royston Roberts. There was no structural theory of organic compounds, nor how the elements that formed them, held together.
Kekulé, who first wanted to be an architect, was inspired by the chemical pioneer Justus von Liebig. After his graduation from university he gained a position, first at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, then at Ghent, in Belgium. But it was while he was residing in Clapham, England, that the first great vision happened—in some ways more like a daydream than a dream. He was riding on the upper level of a bus, heading toward his residence, when
I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. Whenever, hitherto, these diminutive beings had appeared to me, they had always been in motion, but, up till that time I had never been able to discern the nature of their motion. Now, however, I saw how the larger ones formed a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them but only at the ends of a chain.
Then the conductor shouted out “Clapham Road!” and awakened Kekulé from dreaming. That was, he said, the beginning of the structural theory for which he became justly famous.
It was when he was in residence in Ghent, Belgium, in an “elegant bachelor’s quarters,” that the sequel occurred: benzene was a volatile aromatic from whale oil, used in lamps and public lighting all over Europe, and which contained carbon and oxygen in equal proportions.22 (The same aromatic compound was also found in the tar distilled from coal.) It was tremendously useful and very important—but no one could suggest a structural pattern for the molecule, which contained an equal amount of carbon and oxygen atoms (six of each). Both of the quoted passages herein are from Kekulé’s own lips, in the speech given, at an occasion to honor him and his discovery, in Berlin’s City Hall, in 1890.
I was writing on my own textbook, but the work did not progress, my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed.
Again the atoms were gamboling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold conformation: Long rows sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning, I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the consequences of the hypothesis.
Though some scientists have since disputed that there could be anything like a dream at the basis of Kekulé’s profound discovery, the forgoing are his own words. Kekulé’s dreams enabled modern organic chemistry to find its way into such discoveries as plastics, synthetic fabrics and rubber, many medicines, and dyes.
Nobel, who died the same year as Kekulé (1896), decided his prize should be awarded to persons who have “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” in the fields of physics, chemistry, literature, and an “idealistic” contribution to peace between nations and all mankind.
A dedicated researcher like August Kekulé, Professor Otto Loewi was working on a known problem in neuroscience in 1920. How does the electrical activity propagated by one neuron get to another neuron across the space called a synapse (the micro-space between neurons, which do not directly touch each other)? A neurochemical basis for the transmission had been proposed as early as 1877 but never was experimentally proved. (Santiago Ramon y Cajal had discovered the contiguity theory of neurons, including the synapse—for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906—but no one had yet discovered the medium of transmission across the synapse.)
Loewi, a graduate of the University of Strasbourg, had been first given a position at the University of Marburg in Germany, then an appointment as professor of pharmacology at the University of Graz, Austria.
The solution first came to him in 1920, in a dream that he wrote on a thin slip of paper, but felt he didn’t really “have it.” It then recurred, and this time he awakened and wrote it down in great detail. He then designed the experiment that proved the theory, an experiment involving the acceleration and deceleration of frog hearts, which proved the neurochemical basis of neuronal stimulation. He called the “calming” substance he had discovered vagustoff (acetylcholine), while the stimulating substance was called acceleranstoff (epinephrine).
Now remember, reader, that we have discussed in chapter 2 how these two neurotransmitters are alternatively dominant during waking consciousness and sleeping—the biochemistry of consciousness. When the brain is awash in the adrenaline—epinephrine-style neurotransmitters—it is awake. When it is awash in the acetylcholine, it is usually asleep and dreaming.
The Nobel Prize (shared with H. H. Dale) was awarded to Loewi in 1936.
The fact that Loewi made public the source of his discovery in a dream affected and enabled another researcher to win the Nobel Prize. Australian born John Eccles traveled to England on a Rhodes scholarship and came to work with renowned physiologist Sir Charles Sherrington, and published with him on the subject of reflexes of the cat spinal cord.
Todman writes of how Eccles
recalled in his memoirs, “Then in 1947 I developed an electrical theory of synaptic inhibitory action which conformed with all the available experimental evidence. Incidentally this theory came to me in a dream. On awakening I remembered the near-tragic loss of Loewi’s dream, so I kept myself awake for an hour or so going over every aspect of the dream, and found it fitted all experimental evidence.” The details were diagrammed and published in Nature in 1947 and became known as the “Golgi-cell theory of inhibition.” It was an ingenious model which used the current flow of an excited interneurone to generate electronic foci on neurones upon which the synapses were placed.”
Eccles would write more on his speculations about dreams and psychological creativity in his dialogues with Karl Popper in The Self and the Brain.
Einstein Dreams Relativity
We can have very few doubts that Albert Einstein was a dreamer. He credits his discovery of the relativity theory to a dream: In his dream, Albert was sledding. “He was hurtling down a mountainside. He speeds faster and faster upon which he looked to the sky and saw the stars were altered in appearance as he approached the speed of light.”
Einstein was a visionary—that is, he saw ideas as images, and then made further deductions about the ideas. In his autobiography, he records
a paradox upon which I had already hit at the age of sixteen: If I pursue a beam of light with the velocity c (velocity of light in a vacuum), I should observe such a beam of light as an electromagnetic field at rest though spatially oscillating. There seems to be no such thing, however, neither on the basis of experience nor according to Maxwell’s equations. From the very beginning it appeared to me intuitively clear that, judged from the standpoint of such an observer, everything would have to happen according to the same laws as for an observer who, relative to the earth, was at rest. For how should the first observer know or be able to determine, that he is in a state of fast uniform motion? One sees in this paradox the germ of the special relativity theory is already contained.
Einstein riding on a rainbow has inspired a whole generation of dramatists, novelists, and new scientists to imagine how inspiration came to the great wooly-haired genius. What we do know is that dreams and visionary experiences were very influential for Albert Einstein. An evidently fine amateur pianist and violinist, Einstein wrote, “All great achievements of science must start from intuitive knowledge. I believe in intuition and inspiration. . . . At times I feel certain I am right while not knowing the reason.”29 Thus his famous statement that, for creative work in science, “imagination is more important than knowledge.”30 He told Max Wertheimer that he never thought in logical symbols or mathematical equations, but rather in images, feelings, and even musical architectures. Einstein’s autobiographical notes reflect the same thought: “I have no doubt that our thinking goes on for the most part without the use of symbols, and, furthermore, largely unconsciously.” Elsewhere he wrote even more baldly that “[n]o scientist thinks in equations.”
Einstein preferred to think creatively in music rather than equations.
His son Hans amplified what Einstein meant by recounting that
“[w]henever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music, and that would usually resolve all his difficulties.” After playing piano, his sister Maja said, he would get up saying, “There, now I’ve got it.” Something in the music would guide his thoughts in new and creative directions.
An Example of Problem Solving with a Dream
An intriguing example of engineering problem solving occurred in my practice and has never been elsewhere recorded. A retired electrical engineer who was bringing in a relative for treatment heard that I was writing this book on dreams and dreaming. A very modest and conservative-seeming man, he became exited hearing me talk—remembering how a dream had helped him solve an engineering problem more than forty years before. Here is his story.
During my early years [circa 1972] as a new hardware-design engineer at a large computer company, I worked with a small team that designed and tested an adapter that provided an interface between large mainframe input/output [I/O] channels and a smaller microprocessor-based controller in development at the time. For testing purposes, we built hardware models of the design using transistor-transistor [TTL] bipolar logic gates. We
used an asynchronous rather than a synchronous design approach.
In a synchronous design an electronic oscillator generates a repeating series of equally spaced pulses called a clock signal. This clock signal is applied to all the memory elements in the circuit, called latches or flip-flops. The output of the flip-flops only change when triggered by the edge of the clock pulse. Changes to the logic signals throughout the design begin at the same time, at regular intervals synchronized by the clock. The outputs of all the flip-flop memory elements provide the overall state of the design. The state of a synchronous design changes only on the clock pulse. In contrast, an asynchronous design has no clock. The state of the circuit changes as soon as the input changes. Since they don’t have to wait for a clock pulse to begin processing inputs, asynchronous designs can be faster than synchronous designs, and their speed is theoretically limited only by the propagation delays of the logic gates. Because of the speed advantage and lower power consumption, we decided to go with an asynchronous design.
However, asynchronous circuits are more difficult to design and subject to problems not found in synchronous circuits. This is because the resulting state of an asynchronous circuit can be sensitive to the relative arrival times of inputs at the gates. If transitions on two inputs arrive at almost the same time, the circuit can go into the wrong state depending on slight differences in the propagation delays of the gates. This is called a race condition.
Due to the difficulty of asynchronous designs, we encountered several timing/race condition issues during our testing. I remember one such problem, which was particularly difficult to diagnose. The design would work flawlessly for hours, even days. Then suddenly the hardware would go to an incorrect state and fail. Our design team struggled for days trying to determine the cause of the problem so that a solution could be developed. Our design and testing tools at the time were not nearly as advanced as they are today using software simulation. I would think about this problem day and night with visions of pulses setting and resetting flip-flops dancing around in my head constantly. Then one night, I woke up from a dream about the problem. A clear cause and solution to the problem came to me during this dream. I immediately got up, pulled out a paper copy of the logic design, and went straight to the flip-flop that the dream indicated was getting into an incorrect state. Due to the arrival times of certain inputs, a small pulse, or glitch, was being generated that would periodically reset the flip-flop to the wrong state and cause the failure that had us stumped for days.
The next day we designed a solution by adjusting the delays of certain circuits to get rid of the reset pulse. Of course, we encountered other problems during the testing of this design, and we worked through them one at a time. Dreams did not come to the rescue again. However, I still remember this one incident more than forty years ago and how amazed I was that a solution to a problem could come to me through a dream!
After citing Einstein and Kekulé, why should we finish with such an ordinary-seeming story? The answer, the reader will find, is embedded in our question. Many of the more famous examples have been published elsewhere and perhaps become familiar to some readers.
The cauldron does not distribute gifts only to the already gifted, nor the rich and famous. The process goes on daily in our lives. We wanted to combine this unique collection of dream-creativity, because each and every story contains a gem of some kind—brilliant and diamondlike, leading to prizes and valued works or solving problems that we might call small and quotidian.
The formula remains the same whether for Einstein or for the ordinary person: perspiration—inspiration—perspiration. Or as we have seen time and again, our deep and purposeful preoccupations become interwoven with our creative unconscious. The answers it comes up with can be breathtaking and brilliant, but they mirror the integrity and tenacity of the individual human quest.