Many ideas come to us in our sleep, implanting themselves in our subconscious mind, alas only to be forgotten upon waking up. And that is fine because more often than not all dreams tend to be rather on the surreal side.
Other ideas which occurred to some famous people on the threshold of a dream, that they thankfully retained and worked upon whilst awake, not only benefited the dreamer but also people in general. And that’s putting it mildly. The mind can create stories out of random ideas from waking hours that manifest themselves during a dream.
Starting with one of the smallest particles. The doyen of quantum mechanics, Niels Bohr, many times talked about the breakthrough dream that paved the way to his discovery of the structure of the atom. When he fell asleep one night he began dreaming about atoms. He saw the nucleus of the atom, with electrons spinning around it, much as planets spin around their sun. Immediately on awaking, Bohr felt the vision made sense.
But as a scientist, he couldn’t really tell people he dreamed it up! He had to validate it. Ultimately, Bohr's vision of atomic structure turned out to be one of the greatest breakthroughs of his day. He won a Nobel Prize for Physics.
Einstein too had his eureka moment when, as a young man, he dreamed he was skiing down a steep mountainside, going so fast that eventually, he approached the speed of light. He awoke with a start and reflected on this idea, soon formulating the speed of light theory. From science to music, the most successful musician in history Sir Paul McCartney composed the entire melody for the song ‘Yesterday’ in a dream.
The song is the most covered in the world to date. It returned to him fully formed when he woke up and he quickly tinkered on his piano and put together the song, asking his friends and girlfriend if they'd ever heard it before. He was initially worried that he was simply replicating someone else's work (known as cryptomnesia).
The same held true for Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, who dreamt up the riff to ‘Satisfaction’, a basic three-note riff but also one of the most successful.
But much before their time, poet and writer Robert Louis Stevenson dreamed up some important sequences that became the fantasy thriller novel, ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’. Fantasy aside, our own genius mathematician AK Ramanujan stated that the insight for his work came to him in his dreams on many occasions.
Closer to home, for some like actress Adah Sharma, dreams can give a creative idea for a simple event. “My stylist and I tried a lot of gowns for a red carpet event before I went to bed. That night I got a dream that I'm wearing a dress made out of newspaper! So I told her about this the next day and then we decided to wear a newspaper-print dress for the event.
That was a really fun idea which no actress had done before even internationally so I guess we should follow our dreams always as the saying goes. Oh yeah, and if I dream that I’m eating pani puri, you can be sure that I will be the next day!”
From music, science and prose, this holds true for poetry as well. Nandini Mehra, senior mediaperson and poet based in Singapore explains, “Often it seems like the ideas, prose and poems sort of reveal themselves to us, and it’s almost impossible to force them, or force-fit the words into them.
Through a process of trial and error, it seems to me that it’s best to come back to a poem when the mind’s chatter is a bit quietened. And that time between wakefulness and sleep is most conducive to letting the words come to me.
There is little resistance of thought, little analysis, just a kind of peripheral awareness and the poem completes itself. And also sometimes when an idea comes to me in that state, I take it seriously because I’ve learnt that often it holds the seed of a complete poem. So I jot it down, however sketchy it may be. I look at it again in the day and something emerges from it.”
Psychiatrist Dr Nirmala Rao explains the process, proposing that a restless mind has something to do with it, “We can start with Sigmund Freud's quote about dreams to be the Royal Road to the unconscious mind. He also said observing, writing down and thinking about dreams is very important to understand the mind's desires and constraints. There is a big book on the Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud.
Today’s psychiatrists wouldn't accept these theories and trivialise it. Dreams do have significance. Whenever a person is anxious or has an overactive mind, it carries across in the dream state too. Yes, when we are sleeping the conscious mind will take a back seat but the creative mind, the subconscious mind becomes more active. That’s why sleeping over a problem also helps.
The mind is mysterious but it knows what is important to itself and keeps focussing on those issues even in sleep. All of us dream which is called REM sleep followed by NREM sleep which makes us forget our dreams. In the early morning, lots of people remember dreams as they are partially awake.”
Actress Pooja Bedi, who has done a course in NLP (Neural Linguistic Programming) also elaborates, “These are related to the mind and consciousness. There are five brain wave states which determine its activity. Our active daily life and chores and alert functioning are spent in beta.
Artists tend to get their eureka moments and creative ideas in alpha brain wave, which is what you experience when in a relaxed, day-dreamy space which, for example, can be when you're showering.... or getting into sleep mode or coming out of it! Then come theta delta and gamma - deep sleep and super consciousness.
When you study the theory of mind and consciousness and downloading information from the collective consciousness, intuition etc., it's all accessible when you're out of the beta brain wave state. So alpha brain wave state is best as it’s a bridge state between being semi-awake and accessing consciousness.”
Dreams indeed are the chrysalis of a great idea.