Chemist August Kekulé once, in 1865, would have dreamed of a snake swallowing its own tail, the shape of the autophagic snake inspired him to deduce the chemical structure of benzene, a great discovery for organic chemistry.
A few years later, in 1869, another celebrated scientist, Dmitri Mendeleev, had gone to sleep yet again in frustration after unsuccessful attempts to classify atoms. However, the night was a happy one, the researcher dreamed of chemical elements fitting neatly into a table. Agreed, Mendeleev would have composed, at once, the entire periodic table of chemical elements.
Intriguing, revealing, yet these cases are full of exaggerations. Kekulé first mentioned his reptilian dream 28 years after his description of the benzene ring, when he was pressured to present in writing the argument that once announced his discovery. It is speculated that, during this long period, he had time to create a story to omit the real inspiration, still mysterious, for his discovery. And Mendeleev, after a dream, made just a few adjustments to his almost complete table.
Despite so many controversies, these tales continue to be retold and even cited in some important scientific journals. Probably, they are piously accepted because they fulfill an ancient human desire, to give meaning to dreams and because they indicate some preconscious purpose to dream phenomena.
Furthermore, they harbor the seductive idea that science moves not only by positivist and rational effort, but also by flashes of high creativity. These accounts sound credible as they are shaped by our personal experiences. It is possible that almost all of us, who will remain anonymous in history, have already heard some example of a good idea clarified by a dream. But that kind of conversation is not science.
However, there is solid evidence, not just anecdotes, that connect dreams to creativity. Studies show that the people who most remember their dreams are the most creative, they are also the ones who remember the most complex ones. Early research, conducted by Harvard psychology professor Deirdre Barrett, confirmed that dreaming up a problem often helps to find some practical solution.
The explanation for this lies in a sleep phase in which dreams are more abundant and absurd. At this stage, the eyes move wrongly, accelerated and, for this characteristic, it is called REM sleep (from English Rapid Eye Movement: rapid eye movements). Apparently, the oneiric phenomena of this period fuse traces of memories in consolidation, with older and already well-established memories, in a chaotic, original and abstract way. The joining of elements of memories of more recent facts with those of ancient events generates complex experiential patterns, a simulation of reality. This work reorganizes brain synapses to facilitate associations of ideas, a boon to creativity.
I don’t want to say, my dear reader, that your problems are over, because a nice REM sleep is not enough for your creative blocks to disappear. It takes many periods of REM sleep for your creativity to come to the fore, something not very feasible unless you are severely sleep deprived and can change this condition.
But there is a group of people, rare, who go into REM sleep with the greatest ease, including sunlight, many times a day, regardless of how many hours they’ve slept. These individuals have an unusual condition called narcolepsy, which causes extreme drowsiness. Narcoleptics are more creative than us average humans, as two recent studies attest. This finding supports the theory that REM sleep, hence dreams, favors creativity.
D’Anselmo, Anita, Sergio Agnoli, Marco Filardi, Fabio Pizza, Serena Masstria, Giovanni Emanuele Corazza, and Giuseppe Plazzi. “Creativity in Narcolepsy Type 1: The Role of Dissociated REM Sleep Manifestations.” Nature and Science of Sleep 12 : 1191–1200. https://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S277647.
Lacaux, Celia, Charlotte Izabelle, Giulio Santantonio, Laure De Villele, Johanna Frain, Todd Lubart, Fabio Pizza, Giuseppe Plazzi, Isabelle Arnulf, and Delphine Oudiette. “Increased Creative Thinking in Narcolepsy”. Brain: A Journal of Neurology 142, No 7: 1988–99. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awz137.
Barrett, Deirdre. “The ‘committee of sleep’: A study of dream incubation for problem solving”. Dreaming 3, no. 2 (1993): 115–22. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0094375.
Baylor, George W. “What Do We Really Know About Mendeleev’s Dream of the Periodic Table? A Note on Dreams of Scientific Problem Solving”. Dreaming 11, no 2: 89–92. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1009484504919.
“Preconscious Mental Activity and Scientific Problem-Solving: A Critique of the Kekulé Dream Controversy. – PsycNET”. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0094386.