Dreaming is perhaps the most common human experience that scientists still understand relatively little about to this day. Sure, studies have been able to ascertain a few facts about dreams, including that they mostly occur during the rapid-eye movement (REM) period of sleep when brain activity is relatively high, that the average person dreams for a total of around two hours every night, and that most dreams end up being forgotten shortly after waking up, among others. But other important questions about dreams like why we dream what we do and what dreams can tell us about our minds still remain, for the most part, unanswered.
For example, it is still not fully understood why dreams have, numerous times, allowed people to think in ways that they aren’t able to when they’re awake. In fact, several discoveries of great importance were made in their discoverers’ dreams. Here are ten such discoveries:
10. Anatomical Structure of a Fossil Fish
Swiss-born naturalist Louis Agassiz, considered a founding father of modern American science, is best known for his five-volume work, Recherches sur les poissons fossiles (Research on Fossil Fish), published in intervals from 1833 to 1843. As he was working on a particular type of fossil fish for the publication, Agassiz was stuck figuring out how to decipher the anatomical structure of the specimen as fossilized in a slab of stone. Fortunately, two nights in a row, he dreamt about the fish in perfect condition, but alas, shortly after awakening, he could not remember the details of the fish’s anatomy. Thus, on the third night, Agassiz left a pen and paper by his bedside and prayed he would have the dream again. As he had hoped, the dream did come, and while only half-awake, he drew the fish and went back to sleep. Shockingly, when the scientist fully awakened the following morning, he marveled at how accurately detailed his illustration was, thereby leading him to correctly decipher the stone slab.
9. Lockstitch Design Sewing Machine
When American inventor Elias Howe acquired a patent for a sewing machine in 1846, one of his machine’s essential features was a needle with the eye at the point. Amusingly, he envisioned this brilliant idea, which is still seen in modern sewing machines, in his sleep. More specifically, Howe dreamt one night that he was tasked by a cruel king to create a sewing machine in twenty-four hours, the punishment for failing to do so being death. Close to the deadline, he noticed how the spears of the king’s warriors were pierced close to the head, so upon awakening, Howe rushed to his workshop and successfully completed his invention of his version of the sewing machine.
8. The Theory of Relativity
When he was a teenager, Albert Einstein had a strange dream that eventually led to one of his most important discoveries. The vision involved him seeing cows enclosed within electric fencing. Amusingly, the cows had their heads through the wiring and were eating the grass outside their enclosure. This indicated to Einstein that there was no electricity running through the wires. Then, as he looked to the opposite side of the field, he saw the farmer connect the wires to a power supply, which at that exact moment, resulted in the cows jumping backwards from the jolt. Talking to the farmer, Einstein mentioned how he had found it amusing that the cows had reacted instantaneously to the current, but surprisingly, the farmer claimed to have seen the cows jumping one at a time, the cow nearest to him jumping first, then the next, and so on. That dream led Einstein to discover the speed of light, which travels extremely fast, but not infinitely fast. Furthermore, the difference in his and the farmer’s perception allowed Einstein to realize that time is relative.
7. Chemical Neurotransmission
In the wee hours of Easter Sunday in 1921, German-born pharmacologist Otto Loewi dreamt of an important experiment, which he wrote notes about before going back to sleep. Unfortunately, when he woke up once again, he could not understand his scribbles and was deeply tormented by his inability to reconstruct his vision. However, the following night, Loewi had the same dream and this time, upon awakening, he was able to actually carry out and finish the experiment the Monday after Easter. The experiment involved chemical stimulation occurring between two frog hearts. Fifteen years later, Loewi’s discovery of chemical neurotransmission ended up winning him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
6. The Structure of Benzene
According to German organic chemist August Kekulé, he came to create his theory on the structure of the benzene molecule after dreaming about a snake biting its own tail, the ancient symbol of the Ouroboros Serpent. The dream occurred after Kekulé had been working on the theory but was not progressing, resulting in him dozing off in front of a fire. Upon awakening, the chemist realized that the shape of the Ouroboros was similar to the structure of benzene, with its six carbon atoms forming a hexagonal ring. Today, although benzene is largely avoided because of its cancer-causing properties, Kekulé’s discovery is considered instrumental in understanding the structure of elements similar to it.
5. Various Mathematical Proofs
Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the best known Indian mathematicians, surprisingly received very little formal pure mathematics training. And yet, he made an incredible number of contributions to various aspects of mathematics, including the Ramanujan conjecture and the formula for the infinite series for π. So how did he do it? Well, if Ramanujan is to be believed, he was inspired by his family’s goddess, Mahalakshmi of Namakkal, whom the mathematician said gave him dreams of blood drops and mysterious scrolls containing complex mathematical concepts. When he would awake, Ramanujan would write down these visions as he remembered them, and most of these concepts later turned out to be correct.
4. Bohr Model of the Atom
In 1922, Danish physicist Neils Bohr received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his investigation of atomic structure. Quite surprisingly, the nature of the atom was revealed to Bohr in his sleep. More specifically, one night, Bohr dreamt of planets orbiting while attached to the sun by fine threads. Upon awakening, he realized that he could use the structure of the solar system as a guide for understanding the structure of an atom. The discovery proved to be a highly important one as it brought forth a much deeper understanding of atomic physics.
3. The Scientific Method
On November 10, 1619, Swedish philosopher, scientist, and mathematician Rene Descartes was exhausted after intense thought, so he went to sleep. Perhaps a consequence of his extremely busy mind, he experienced three unusual dreams. The first involved him being in the midst of a whirlwind and phantoms as he waited to receive a melon (yes, a melon) from a faraway place. The second featured a thunderstorm within his room. The last, in contrast, was quite peaceful and included a stranger who held a poetry compilation. Upon awakening, Descartes interpreted his dreams to mean that everything in the world could be analyzed with the method of scientific reason. Many years later, this concept was developed into the scientific method — still the most widely accepted method for arriving at new knowledge.
2. Insulin for Diabetics
442 Adelaide St. N., London, Ontario is the address of the Banting House, a tourist destination in Canada. It used to serve as the home of Frederick Banting, the scientist who first used insulin on humans. One of the Banting House’s main attractions is Mr. Banting’s bed, where he came up with the idea for how to use insulin to treat diabetes. More specifically, on October 31, 1920, Banting went to sleep and dreamt of a particular experiment. When he awoke, he carried out the experiment and proved that insulin could be used for controlling diabetes. The discovery later earned him the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
1. Advancements in the Development of the Periodic Table of Elements
Dmitri Mendeleev of Russia is credited for advancing knowledge on chemical elements by developing an extended version of the periodic table. Mendeleev’s contribution was nothing short of astounding as during the late 1860s, there were no means of accurately measuring the atomic weights of elements, thus making it virtually impossible to precisely arrange the elements in an organized table. However, Mendeleev bravely and correctly theorized that the accepted atomic weights of several elements at that time were incorrect. He further insisted that elements, arranged according to their correct atomic weights, would exhibit a periodic characteristic. Quite intriguingly, Mendeleev is said to have developed the visual representation of his ideas after temporarily giving up on his work because of his lack of progress. Ironically, it was during a deep sleep that the Russian chemist saw a table “where all the elements fell into place as required.” Upon waking up, Mendeleev immediately drew the table as he had seen it in his dream. And while he later made adjustments to the table as he originally drew it, the vision in Mendeleev’s dream is acknowledged as a major turning point in the development of the periodic table of elements as we know it today.