Exploratory Dives into the Unconscious
The dream experiences of physicians, inventors, mathematicians, and scientists reinforce the image of the One Mind as a repository of information and intelligence that can be put to practical use.
This view was sanctioned by Arthur Koestler in his brilliant exploration of creativity, The Act of Creation. Koestler called dreams an “essential part of psychic metabolism…. Without this daily dip into the ancient sources of mental life, we would probably all become desiccated automata. And without the more spectacular exploratory dives of the creative individual, there would be no science and no art.”
A spectacular “exploratory dive” into the unconscious was taken one night by Elias Howe. For years Howe had struggled unsuccessfully to perfect his sewing machine, but he was plagued by problems with the needle. Then one night he dreamed he was captured by savages who dragged him before their king.
The king issued an ultimatum: if within 24 hours Howe did not come up with a machine that could sew, he would die by the spear. As time ran out, the menacing savages approached Howe, their spears raised for the kill. Holding up his hands to ward off the inevitable, Howe noticed that each of the spear points had an eye-shaped hole near the tip.
He awoke full of excitement, realizing that the hole in the sewing machine needle must go at the tip, not at the middle or the bottom where he had been trying to place it. He raced from bed to his workshop, filed a needle to the proper size, drilled a hole near its tip, and inserted it in the machine. The rest, as they say, is history.
In his monumental book Our Dreaming Mind, Robert L. Van de Castle, former director of the University of Virginia Medical School’s Sleep and Dream Laboratory, cited several instances in which the minds of scientists frolicked nonlocally during dreamtime, with stunning consequences.
He reported that early in the 20th century, researcher Edmond Maillet sent a questionnaire to a group of mathematicians who had worked in their profession for at least ten years. Four of his respondents described “mathematical dreams” in which a solution actually occurred during the dream; eight acknowledged finding the beginnings of a solution or useful idea while dreaming; and another fifteen described how on waking they had achieved complete or partial solutions to questions posed the previous night.
Srinivasa Ramanujan, the 20th-century mathematician, is considered a giant in his field. Certainly Ramanujan enjoyed an advantage over his colleagues: his dreams included an otherworldly mentor. In a 1948 article in Scientific American entitled “Mathematics and the Imagination,” he reported how the Hindu goddess Namakkal would appear in his dreams and reveal to him mathematical formulae that he would verify on waking, a pattern that continued all his life.
A world-changing dream occurred in 1869 to Dmitri Mendeleyev, a professor of chemistry at Saint Petersburg, after he went to bed frustrated by his attempts to categorize the chemical elements according to their atomic weights.
“I saw in a dream,” he reported, “a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.” The result was the periodic table of the elements. The dream also enabled Mendeleyev to predict the existence and properties of three new elements, which were discovered within the next 15 years.
Perhaps the most famous example of a dreaming scientist is that of Friedrich A. von Kekule, a professor of chemistry at Ghent, Belgium. Kekule was attempting without success to determine the structure of the benzene molecule. He fell asleep while sitting in a chair and saw atoms flitting before him in various structures and patterns.
Soon long rows of atoms formed and took on a twisting, snakelike pattern. All of a sudden one of the snakes seized its own tail in its mouth and started to whirl in a circle. “As if by a flash of lightning” Kekule awoke and began to work out the implications of the dream images. This led to the idea that benzene was a six-carbon ring structure, which revolutionized organic chemistry.
In an address to a scientific meeting in 1890, he concluded his talk to his colleagues by honoring his process of discovery: “Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth.”
One of the legendary discoveries in modern medical research, insulin, is dream related. Frederick Banting, a Canadian physician, was conducting research on diabetes. Awakening from a dream one night, he wrote down the following words: “Tie up the duct of the pancreas of a dog. Wait for a few weeks until the glands shrivel up. Then cut it out, wash it out and filter the precipitation.”
This procedure led him to discover the hormone insulin, which proved lifesaving for millions of diabetics. It also led to Banting’s being knighted—an interesting word, considering his nocturnal revelation.
The list of scientific discoveries influenced by dreams is quite long—James Watt’s discovery of how to make spherical pellets that could be used as shot; David Parkinson’s discovery at Bell Laboratories of the all-electric gun director known as the M-9 device, the precursor of guidance systems used later in antiaircraft and antiballistic missiles; Ernst Chladni’s invention of the euphonium, a new musical instrument—on and on.
Dreaming remains one of the most common pathways of entering the One Mind. As the collective nature of consciousness becomes more fully appreciated within science, skeptical scientists will understand that to be called a dreamer is a high compliment indeed.
This is a reminder to us all — creatives or otherwise — to pose questions. Especially in the night! Pose a question to an issue that’s vexing you when you go to sleep. Try it a few nights to see what the deep recesses of your mind comes up with.
I’ve had good results with this method — and regret telling you now how often I’ve used it to good effect and yet had forgotten about the process. This method had fallen out of my repertoire for problem solving.
It’s like mislaying the key to a treasure chest.
Now, thanks to Larry Dossey, it’s back.
You might give it a whirl too. If something has been gnawing at you, something unresolved, what can you lose?
Steep yourself in the issue shortly before sleeping — then ask for a clear solution.
Keep a notepad handy . . . .