Sleep on a Problem... It works like a dream

Josephine Ross with some fascinating anecdotal accounts of creative and scientific insights in dreams
SPENT the night naked in a public place again? Late for an important appointment? Picking your teeth up off the floor? You may not see the need for this nightly torture, but the typical person dreams every night, implying that dreaming is an evolutionarily adaptive state. Despite over four decades of research elucidating the neurophysiology of sleep (see Maquet et al., 2005 for a recent meta-analysis) there is currently no consensus about why we dream. But the idea that dreams are given to us for our advantage and instruction is very old: Antiphon, a Greek living in the fourth century bc, wrote the first known descriptive book of dreams, designed to be used for practical interpretations (Crisp, 1990). In the second century ad a similar book was written by Artemidorus – he claimed to have gathered his information from ancient sources, including an Egyptian dream book dating from 2000bc (Schatzman, 1984).

Sleep on a problem... It works like a dream

SPENT the night naked in a public place again? Late for an important appointment? Picking your teeth up off the floor? You may not see the need for this nightly torture, but the typical person dreams every night, implying that dreaming is an evolutionarily adaptive state. Despite over four decades of research elucidating the neurophysiology of sleep (see Maquet et al., 2005 for a recent meta-analysis) there is currently no consensus about why we dream. But the idea that dreams are given to us for our advantage and instruction is very old: Antiphon, a Greek living in the fourth century bc, wrote the first known descriptive book of dreams, designed to be used for practical interpretations (Crisp, 1990). In the second century ad a similar book was written by Artemidorus – he claimed to have gathered his information from ancient sources, including an Egyptian dream book dating from 2000bc (Schatzman, 1984).
In support of these antiquated sources, and in opposition to the modern mantra ‘you snooze, you lose’, there are several 19th- and 20th-century accounts of inspirational, or problem-solving, dreams. Anecdotal accounts of artistic and scientific insights occurring in dreams make fascinating reading (for example the excellent book by Martin, 2002).
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) is widely cited as claiming that he dreamt his poem Kubla Khan word for word. Further endorsement of the creative value of sleep comes from the composer Richard Wagner (1813–1883), who stated of his opera Tristan and Isolde:
For once you are going to hear a dream, a dream that I have made sound… I dreamed all this: never could my poor head have invented such a thing purposefully. (Krippner, 1981).
In an explicit effort to capitalise on sleep, Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–1894) reportedly trained himself to dream plots for his literature, notably crediting the plot of his novel Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to his unconscious thought processes:For two days I went about wracking my brains for a plot of any sort, and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers. (Terry, 1996)
Apparently of a similarly strong work ethic, Elias Howe (1819–1867) lends further support to the contention that there is no need to confine inspiration to waking hours. He patented the first sewing machine following a dream in which an essential element of his invention was presented metaphorically. In his dream, he was in Africa running from wild cannibals who attacked him with sharp spears. Each spear had a hole at its tip. Upon waking in a cold sweat, Howe is said to have realised that the trick to making his sewing machine work was to move the thread hole up to point of the needle as opposed to the base (Krippner, 1981).
The creativity of unconscious thought was the focus of the Surrealist art movement, and many paintings of this genre are said to be direct reproductions of dreams. For example, Salvador Dali described work in his surreal period as ‘hand-painted dream photographs’ (Ades, 1982).
Impressive examples of problem solving dreams are also in evidence amongst the sciences. Legend has it that Dimitri Mendeleyev (1834–1907) was able to write out for the first time the entire periodic table – which forms the basis of modern chemistry – following a metaphorical dream. Mendeleyev is said to have realised in his dream that the basic chemical elements are all related to each other in a manner comparable to the themes and phrases in music (Krippner, 1981). The structure of the chemical benzene was similarly revealed in a dream to the chemist August Kekulé (1829–1896), who related his dramatised account as follows at a scientific festival:
Again the atoms were juggling before my eyes… my mind’s eye, sharpened by repeated sights of a similar kind, could now distinguish larger structures of different forms and in long chains, many of them close together; everything was moving in a snake-like and twisting manner. Suddenly… one of the snakes got hold of its own tail and the whole structure was mockingly twisting in front of my eyes. As if struck by lightning, I awoke…Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth. (Strunz, 1993)                                            
Albert Einstein’s 1905 theory of relativity was apparently inspired by a dream in which he was sledding down a mountainside, watching the appearance of the stars change relative to his own speed (Mendlam, 2003). Einstein’s contemporary Niels Bohr (1885–1962) reputedly gained insight into how electrons remain in their orbits from a dream of horses running around a race track. Based on this image Bohr was able to formulate his quantum theory, a scientific breakthrough for which he was eventually awarded a Nobel Prize. Ottis Loewi repeated this seemingly implausible feat, describing the origin of his own Nobel prize-winning contribution to science as follows: 
In the night of Easter Saturday, 1921, I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. That Sunday was the most desperate day in my whole scientific life. During the next night, however, I awoke again, at three o’clock, and I remembered what it was. This time I did not take any risk; I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, made the experiment on the frog’s heart, and at five o’clock the chemical transmission of nervous impulse was conclusively proved. (Loewi, 1953)
Claims to have gained valuable inspiration from dreams persist in popular culture. Although his award was perhaps not as impressive as a Nobel Prize, sporting legend Jack Nicklaus credited a crucial improvement in his golf game to dreaming of a new way to grasp his club (cited in Dement, 1974). The most frequently covered song of the 20th century – The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ – was reportedly written by Paul McCartney following a dream. McCartney was so impressed by this work that he subsequently had to be convinced that the melody was of his own creation (Delano, 2003). Echoing this creative confusion, poet Laureate Ted Hughes tells of his dismay – and subsequent delight – at dreaming the full text of his play The Wound. In his dream the work was written by contemporary playwright John Arden:
And I was furious that this play, which seemed to be so absolutely what I wanted to write, should have been written by somebody else, and that he’d got it. And then as I lay there, it gradually dawned on me that, in fact, if I had dreamed it, it was my play. (Skea, 1976)
An example of a lucrative nightmare is offered by horror writer Stephen King, who admits of his 1988 novel (and eventual screenplay) Misery.
I fell asleep on the plane and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, ‘I have to write this story’. Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel. (Nicholls, 2004)
An interesting attempt to test endorsement of the problem-solving function of dreams in ‘ordinary’ people is provided by Schatzman (1983a, 1983b, 1984, 1986). He distributed ‘brain-teasers’ via the mass media, along with incubation instructions. He received numerous anecdotal examples of dreams solving these problems, although he has no way of knowing how many people took part. An exemplary anecdote related by Schatzman (1984) involved a colleague’s incubation of the problem ‘Which two English words begin and end with the letters H and E?’ Schatzman’s friend reportedly contacted him with the correct answer and the following dream report:
I get an intense pain in my chest and fall over. Juliet, my wife, comes out of the house laughing. Her laugh is not her usual one, but is a squeaky ‘He…he…heee’… we arrive at the hospital… A doctor comes. ‘I know what’s wrong with you’, he says… ‘I have been forbidden to discharge you’, he says, ‘until you tell me in plain language what your problem is.’ All this time behind his hand he’s laughing with a high pitched ‘He…he…heee’. I get very angry… ‘you could call it anything, even heartache’ I say. He stops laughing ‘You can go home now’… ‘I’m not quite better’, I tell him… I leave the hospital and Morton Schatzman appear…. ‘I told you there were two things wrong with you’ Morton says… ‘Riddles give me headaches’, I tell him.
The words in bold type are the solutions that Schatzman had in mind, though the persistent laughter presents a simpler, unanticipated, solution i.e. the two letter word ‘he’.
Using a similar paradigm, requiring students to keep dream diaries following the distribution of lateral thinking puzzles, Dement (1972) observed dream transcripts which contained solutions of which the dreamer remained unaware. For example, the correct answer to one of Dement’s (1972) problems was ‘water’, a solution that one of his participants failed to realise despite relating dreams of various water-based activities (surfing, scuba-diving, etc.), all carried out in the rain. See the
box for more problems: try sleeping on them yourself, and turn the page upside down in the morning to check your sleepy solutions.

Dream or incubation?
The accumulation of anecdotal evidence supports the possibility that dreams generate novel solutions. However, Blagrove (1992) notes that these accounts of problem-solving during sleep are confounded with the incubatory theory of creativity. Incubation is held to follow the activity of researching the problem, and is claimed to involve the implicit processing of this acquired knowledge, resulting in ‘spontaneous’ illumination (popularly referred to as a ‘Eureka!’ moment). The anecdotal evidence reviewed is consistent with this theory; each of the historical figures involved were adept in their field prior to having an ‘inspirational’ dream, and the brain teasers distributed by Schatzman and Dement were fairly easily solvable. Further, many of the dreams described were relevant to their ‘product’ only through metaphorical interpretation, the processing of which may rely on waking cognition.
Despite such confounds, the anecdotal evidence provides tenable, if not yet overwhelming, endorsement of a creative function for dreaming, and invites empirical research assessing this evolutionary adaptive explanation. A familiar theme in anecdotal accounts of inspirational dreams is the failure to recognise ones’ role in providing the solution. Both Wagner and McCartney ‘disowned’ their musical innovations when discussing them after the event. Amusingly, Hughes incorporated this feeling of dissociation into his dream, in which his play was presented as the creation of a contemporary. Such observations are potentially important as they imply that the dreaming process, rather than waking cognition associated with it, is primarily responsible for presenting a solution.
An intriguing possibility is that the lack of volitional control available to the dreamer (as reflected in apparent dissociation between dreamer and dream), coupled with a lack of external input, combines to provide a uniquely creative background for problem solving. The implication is that if we could only figure out how to follow them, our dreams may yet bring us fame and fortune.

Josephine Ross is a Postgraduate student at the University of Stirling.
E-mail: [email protected].

Discuss and debate

Is there a true distinction between waking and sleeping cognition? If so, under what category do we consider lucid dreams?
Can the content of dreams ever be truly creative, or are they always just a product of waking experience?
How does culture influence the interpretation of dreams and their function?
Do recurring dreams highlight recurring problems, and do they cease when the problem has been solved?
Have your say on these or other issues this article raises.
E-mail ‘Letters’ on [email protected] or contribute to our forum via www.psychforum.org.uk.

Sleep on these…
Examples of Dement’s (1972) problems:
Problem 1: The letters O, T, T, F, F…..form the beginning of an infinite sequence. Find a rule for determining any or all successive letters. According to your rule, what would be the next two letters in the sequence?
Problem 2: Consider the letters H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O. The solution to this problem is one word. What is the word?
Problem 3: The numbers 8, 5, 4, 9, 1, 7, 6, 3, 2 form a sequence. How are these numbers ordered?

Solutions:
1: The next two letters in the sequence are S, S. The letters represent the first letters used in spelling out the numerical sequence ‘One, two, three, four, five, six, seven etc’.
2: The solution is the word ‘water’ derived from the chemical formula H20 or H-to-O as given in the problem.
3: The numbers, if spelled out, are ordered alphabetically.

References

Ades, D. (1982). Dali. London: Thames and Hudson.
Blagrove, M. (1992). Dreams as a reflection of our waking concerns and abilities: A critique of the problem-solving paradigm in dream research. Dreaming, 2, 205–219.
Crisp, T. (1990). Dream Dictionary. London: Macdonald.
Dement, W.C. (1972). Some must watch while some just sleep. New York: Freeman
Delano, J. (2003). The Beatles album. London: PRC Publishing Ltd.
Krippner, S. (1981). Access to hidden reserves of the unconscious through dreams in creative problem solving. Journal of Creative Behaviour, 15, 11–22.
Loewi, O. (1953). From the Workshop of Discoveries. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press.
Maquet, P., Ruby, P., Maudoux, A. et al. (2005). Human cognition during REM sleep and the activity profile within frontal and parietal cortices. A reappraisal of functional neuroimaging data. Progress in Brain Research,150, 219–27.
Martin, P. (2002). Counting sheep. London: Flamingo.
Mendlam, T. (2003.) Famous dreams. At www.here-be-dreams.com
Nicholls, S. (2004). On a tightrope. At www.tiscali.co.uk/scifi/interviews.html
Schatzman, Morton. (1983a). Solve your problems in your sleep. New Scientist, 9, 692–693.
Schatzman, Morton. (1983b). Sleeping on problems can really solve them. New Scientist, 11, 416–417.
Schatzman, Morton. (1984). Dreams and problem solving. International Medicine, 4, 6–9
Schatzman, Morton. (1986). The meaning of dreams. New Scientist, 25, 36–39.
Skea, A. (1976). Transcript of the interview with Ted Hughes from the Adelaide Festival reproduced by permission of Radio National and the ABC (Australia). At www.zeta.org.
Strunz, F. (1993). Preconscious mental activity and scientific problem-solving: A critique of the Kekule dream controversy. Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams, 3, 281–294.
Terry, R.C. (Ed.) (1996). Robert Louis Stevenson: Interviews and recollections. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber