When A Really Great Dream Shows Up, Grab It!

How dreams can lead to insights and inventions.

These interior vistas, wandering narratives, and inner sources of inspiration are accessible not just to artists but to all of us, simply by sleeping. The self-doubts that plague us during the day become quiet during sleep, and our creativity can find expression without fear, censorship, or judgment. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. J. Allan Hobson summed it up: “Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas.”

Indeed, dreams have been credited with inspiring several scientific breakthroughs. In the mid–nineteenth century, American inventor Elias Howe struggled to figure out how to build a sewing machine. Then, according to a published family history, he had a dream in which he had to build a sewing machine for “a savage king in a strange country,” under punishment of death if he failed. When Howe’s time ran out and the king’s warriors came to execute him, he noticed that their spears had holes near the pointed end. When he awoke, he realized that the missing link for his invention was moving the eye of the needle to the pointed end instead of the blunt end, where it is located for hand sewing. So next time you awake from a nightmare, don’t forget to go back over the details — just in case they contain the key to your game-changing invention.

The periodic table of elements, the brainchild of the Russian chemist and inventor Dmitri Mendeleev, also came to him in a dream-inspired breakthrough: “I saw in a dream a table where all 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.”

Dr. Otto Loewi, the German-born psychobiologist, had a dream about the way to structure an experiment proving that nerve impulses are actually chemical. He scribbled down some notes when he awoke and went back to bed. The next morning, to his horror, he could not read his own writing. He spent the whole day desperately trying to remember the dream. That night, in a twist of fate, he had the same dream again. This time he got up and went right to his lab to perform the experiment. The results won him the Nobel Prize in 1936. The lesson: if your subconscious plays your dream a second time, pay attention to it. And write carefully — good penmanship is an underrated virtue.

In 1865, a dream about a snake eating its own tail led the German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé to envision the structure of the benzene molecule — a chemical compound with many industrial uses — as a ring. It led him to the revolutionary discovery that, as Arthur Koestler wrote in The Act of Creation, “the molecules of certain important organic compounds are not open structures but closed chains or ‘rings’ — like the snake swallowing its tail.” Koestler heralded Kekulé’s dream as “the most important dream in history since Joseph’s seven fat and seven lean cows.”

In the 1890s, Sarah Breedlove, who worked as a laundress and dishwasher, mysteriously began to lose her hair. Distraught, she prayed for a cure, and an inspiration came to her in a dream: “A big, black man appeared to me and told me what to mix up in my hair. Some of the remedy was grown in Africa, but I sent for it, mixed it, put it on my scalp, and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out. I tried it on my friends; it helped them. I made up my mind to begin to sell it.” And that’s how Madam C. J. Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower was born, which ultimately led her to found the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company of beauty products for African-Americans, which made her a multimillionaire. Indeed, her 1919 obituary described her as the wealthiest African-American woman in the United States, “if not the world.”

“Yours is the truest dream, because it had immediate effect in your waking life.” What matters is how quickly you do what your soul directs.

— Rumi, “Three Travelers Tell Their Dreams”

More recently, Google, that repository of our entire waking world, was conceived in a dream. Here is how Larry Page described its creation in his 2009 University of Michigan commencement speech:

“Well, I had one of those dreams when I was 23. When I suddenly woke up, I was thinking: what if we could download the whole web, and just keep the links and . . . I grabbed a pen and started writing! Sometimes it is important to wake up and stop dreaming. I spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work. Soon after, I told my adviser, Terry Winograd, it would take a couple of weeks to download the web — he nodded knowingly, fully aware it would take much longer but wise enough to not tell me. The optimism of youth is often underrated! Amazingly, I had no thought of building a search engine. The idea wasn’t even on the radar. But much later we happened upon a better way of ranking webpages to make a really great search engine, and Google was born. When a really great dream shows up, grab it!”

Arthur Koestler described dreams as a “period of incubation” and made the case for why they can be a more fertile place for new ideas than our rational, linear, task-driven daytime lives. The creativity of dreams comes from “the displacement of attention to something not previously noted, which was irrelevant in the old and is relevant in the new context. . . . The creative act is not an act of creation in the sense of The Old Testament. It does not create something out of nothing; it uncovers, selects, re-shuffles, combines, synthesizes already existing facts, ideas, faculties, skills.” By including dreams in our definition of consciousness, Koestler helps us to see that to dismiss the content of our dreams is to diminish our vast potential.


Excerpted from THE SLEEP REVOLUTION by Arianna Huffington. Copyright © 2016 by Christabella, LLC. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.