Scientists, philosophers, and theologians have long pondered and theorized about dreams. What are they? What causes them? What purpose do they serve?
The debates about dreams continue, but one thing is certain: some dreams are so powerful that they make an impact on the waking world. Sometimes the dream may affect the personal decisions of an individual, such as when an unsettling nightmare seems to speak with foreboding about taking the train instead of traveling by air. Other times, a dream may cast its influence well beyond the private life of the dreamer.
When a dream comes to a naturally-creative or artistic person, that dream has the potential of coming to life.
The young man was having a difficult time. He had been hired to be the director for a major motion picture, but things were not going well for him. He was having creative differences that led to power struggles with the film’s producer. Consequently, he did not feel as if he was actually the director; he felt more like a puppet, with his creative abilities questioned and hindered at every turn. On top of that, the production schedule had him in Rome, far from his home and loved ones. If that weren’t enough, he was sick and suffering from a high fever.
Killer Robots From the Future, the King of Vampires, and Other Things That Go Bump In the Night
Discouraged about his lot in life, James went to bed that night, hoping that sleep would give him a few blessed hours of freedom from conflict. Instead, a terrifying nightmare invaded his consciousness. Just as in his waking hours, his dream was filled with someone pursuing him, trying to stop him, but the nightmare took a strange twist. Instead of a power-hungry producer as his adversary, James had to contend with an assassin. This was no ordinary assassin, either; it was a robot. The robot was sent from the future to finish him off. It was indestructible, relentless, and horrifying.
James woke up from the experience, relieved to discover it was all just a nightmare. He went on to complete the film. Upon its release, critics called Piranha II: The Spawning “a marvelously bad movie which splices cliches from every conceivable source.”
He tried to put the film out of his mind and move on. One thing he couldn’t get out of his mind, however, was that strange nightmare. He decided to put the dream to paper and made it into a movie script. Two years later, James Cameron’s feverish nightmare came to life on the big screen. No one was thinking about Piranha II, when they heard Arnold Schwarzenegger, as the Terminator, saying, “I’ll be back.”
The Terminator wasn’t the first scary villain to terrify the public as a result of someone’s bad dream. One of the most iconic bad guys in fiction is the vampire Dracula. Bram Stoker created the king of vampires in the 1897 book of the same name. When asked where he drew the inspiration for such a memorable character, the author credited a nightmare induced by “a too-generous helping of dressed crab at supper.” That crab-induced nightmare resulted in a book that has been translated into 44 languages and has sold millions of copies, inspiring countless adaptations in practically every genre of entertainment imaginable.
As discussed in this post, Mary Shelley was inspired by a dream — and some volcanic weather — to create a terrifying creature who would be paired with Dracula in books, films, and our imagination forever: the monster of Frankenstein.
If history is any indication, aspiring horror writers should welcome nightmarish interruptions of their sleep. One such author recorded a disturbing nighttime vision:
“In late September of 1974, Tabby and I spent a night at a grand old hotel in Estes Park, the Stanley. We were the only guests as it turned out, the following day they were going to close the place down for the winter. Wandering through its corridors, I thought that it seemed the perfect – maybe the archetypal – setting for a ghost story. That night I dreamed of my three-year-old son running through the corridors, looking back over his shoulder, eyes wide, screaming. He was being chased by a fire-hose. I woke up with a tremendous jerk, sweating all over, within an inch of falling out of the bed. I got up, lit a cigarette, sat in the chair looking out the window at the Rockies, and by the time the cigarette was done, I had the bones of the book firmly set in my mind.”
The book would become The Shining. It was Stephen King’s third novel and his first hardcover best-seller. It inspired the Jack Nicholson movie of the same name and established King as one of the top authors in the horror genre.
Perhaps it was his experience with The Shining and the dream that inspired it that caused King to pay particular attention to his dreams. About a decade after his nightmare about the hotel, King had another disturbing dream.
“I was on Concorde…. 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.”
This gruesome dream became the novel Misery, which was also a bestseller and inspiration for another blockbuster movie.
Tunes of Blue Turtles, Yearnings for Yesterday, and Refrains of Rock
Fortunately, it isn’t just nightmares that inspire creativity. Dreams can even inspire musical compositions. Singer/songwriter Sting keeps a diary of his dreams, and he named his 1985 album The Dream of the Blue Turtles after one of them.
In 1965, Paul McCartney dreamed the entire melody of a song. It was so vivid that when he awoke, he could remember every note. He was so convinced that it must have been something he heard before that he played the song on his piano, asking friends and family if they recognized it. He said, “For about a month I went round to people in the music business and asked them whether they had ever heard it before. Eventually, it became like handing something into the police. I thought if no-one claimed it after a few weeks then I could have it.” At last, convinced that the composition was his and had come to him in his dream, he went forward with what would be known as his hit acoustic song “Yesterday.”
Queen guitarist Brian May is another whose creativity came to him while he was sleeping. He recalled how one of the band’s greatest hits came to be:
“Queen played a gig at Bingley Hall near Birmingham. It was a popular venue at the time. It was a big sweaty barn and that night it was packed with a particularly vocal crowd. They were definitely drowning us out with their enthusiasm. I remember that even after we left the stage they didn’t stop singing – loudly. They sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which is very emotional. Quite a choking thing really. I certainly found it inspirational. Later that night back at our hotel I said to the others, ‘That was great. So what should we do to continue generating that kind of energetic response?’ I woke up with the ‘We Will Rock You’ lyrics in my head and had it written in about 10 minutes.”
Fantasies of Physics, Sewing in Slumber, and Premonitions of Pi
It isn’t just in the field of entertainment that dreams have had an impact. Science and technology have taken great leaps forward at key moments in history, thanks to some brilliant dreamers.
Albert Einstein recalled how, at the age of 16, he had a dream in which he was chasing after a beam of light. He couldn’t get that dream out of his mind, and it inspired him toward a series of thought experiments. The end result of this dream-inspired chain of thought was Einstein’s theory of special relativity.
Neils Bohr had a night of fitful sleep. He had spent his waking hours trying to understand the structure of the atom, but none of his theories would withstand scrutiny. Finally, exhausted from his work, he sought solace in slumber. It was then, in the world of dreams, that he saw the nucleus of the atom, with electrons spinning around it, much as planets spin around their sun.
When he awakened, he remembered his dream and tested the concepts he had imagined. They panned out, and history now remembers him as the Father of Quantum Mechanics.
Elias Howe had a dream about a sewing machine. That may seem like a strange thing to fill a man’s sleeping thoughts, but he was preoccupied with the device. The sewing machine had been invented in 1830 by Barthelemy Thimonnier, but 15 years later, it still lacked practicality. Howe tried to figure out an improvement in the design but to no avail. His family records record the breakthrough moment:
“He almost beggared himself before he discovered where the eye of the needle of the sewing machine should be located… he might have failed altogether if he had not dreamed he was building a sewing machine for a savage king in a strange country. Just as in his actual working experience, he was perplexed about the needle’s eye. He thought the king gave him twenty-four hours in which to complete the machine and make it sew. If not finished in that time death was to be the punishment.”
In his dream, he kept failing at his task and was led out to be executed. It was then that he noticed that the warriors carried spears that were pierced near the head. The solution to his problem came to him in an instant. He awoke from the dream and came up with a revolutionary improvement to the design of the sewing machine. He received a patent for a sewing machine using a lockstitch design.
Srinivasa Ramanujan was an Indian mathematical genius and pioneer in the analytical theory of numbers, elliptical functions, continued fractions, and infinite series. In his lifetime, he proved more than 3,000 mathematical theorems. He credited many of his most profound discoveries to dreams. He said as he slept, he would dream of the Hindu goddess Namakkal, who gave him complex mathematical formulas. One of these was the infinite series for Pi:
Medical Musing, Chemical Concoctions, and Diabetic Dreams
Otto Loewi was a pharmacologist who sought to better understand how nerves worked. In 1921, the answer came to him in a dream, but when he awoke, he discovered something that every dreamer has learned: the memories of dreams can rapidly fade away.
He awoke from his dream in the middle of the night, convinced that he had seen the answer to the mystery. Delighted, he scribbled down what he had seen in the dream’s visions and went back to sleep. The next morning, he was horrified to realize that he was unable to make any sense of his midnight scrawling. He later said that day was the longest day of his life, as he fruitlessly tried to remember any helpful detail of the elusive dream.
That night, Loewi collapsed in bed, embittered and discouraged. Thankfully, the dream returned to him. This time, upon awaking, he carefully wrote all of the details. His follow-up experiments showed that nerve transmission is chemical in nature, and it led to the discovery of acetylcholine. This discovery earned Loewi a Nobel Prize. Ironically, it is acetylcholine that is responsible for promoting dreaming in the first place.
Chemistry was affected by the dreams of another German when organic chemist, August Kekulé turned his keen mind toward the structure of the Benzene molecule. He had been grappling with how atoms came together to form Benzene, but no formulation seemed to produce a molecular structure that made sense. The problem rested with the fact that all known organic compounds to date had a linear structure, but there was no way to make Benzene’s atoms form a line.
The solution came to Kekulé in a dream. In 1865, at a gathering of the German Chemical Society, Kekulé described how he hit upon the solution.
He said he discovered the ring shape of the Benzene molecule after dreaming about a snake seizing its own tail, taking the shape of an ancient symbol known as the ouroboros:
“I was sitting writing at my textbook but the work did not progress; my thoughts were elsewhere. I turned my chair to the fire and dozed. Again the atoms were gambolling before my eyes. This time the smaller groups kept modestly in the background. My mental eye, rendered more acute by the repeated visions of the kind, could now distinguish larger structures of manifold confirmation: long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together all twining and twisting in snake-like motion.
But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail, and the form whirled mockingly before my eyes. As if by a flash of lightning I awoke; and this time also I spent the rest of the night in working out the rest of the hypothesis.”
Frederick Banting was highly motivated to find a cure for diabetes. His mother passed away from the disease, and Banting was eager to spare other families similar heartache.
Finding a cure would not be in his future, but a dream allowed him to give sufferers of diabetes their first real hope for living a normal life: insulin. He won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his discovery.
His discovery was inspired by two different dreams. In one dream, he saw a vision of a dog’s pancreas being surgically tied up to prevent the flow of pancreatic secretions. He did this in his waking hours and saw an immediate correlation with the level of blood sugar. A subsequent dream gave him the insight needed to develop insulin as a drug to treat diabetes in humans.
It was Walt Disney who observed, “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them.” The next time you dream, don’t be too quick to dismiss it as a random jumble of midnight thoughts. Perhaps your dreams have the power to change history.