Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was an Indian mathematical genius who ranked alongside the greatest of mathematicians Euler and Jacobi. He was self-taught, using textbooks of advanced mathematics available to him in India to teach himself the subject. However, he went way beyond his textbooks in his mathematical imagination.
Even to his fellow colleagues, his talents were magical. Where did Ramanujan get his inspiration? Ramanujan himself gave credit to a Hindu goddess who he said gave him his inspiration as he dreamt in his sleep.
Ramanujan managed to train himself in math to a proficiency that was savant-like in the leaps of imagination it enabled. Was Ramanujan merely using inspiration from Goddess Namagiri to deflect what was no doubt a tiresome query oft-repeated? Unlikely for the story was consistent with who he was, a pious brahmin who grew up in a traditional and conservative environment in south India. It is interesting to note, that his colleague Hardy described Ramanujan’s mathematical approach as containing, mingled argument, intuition, and induction in equal measure and lacking the systematic coherence that was the style of presentation of all trained mathematicians of the day.
The greatest mathematicians think visuospatial, and this kind of thinking is key to their ability to solve problems.
When we sleep, it is during REM sleep that our dreams are visually rich. REM sleep may foster the kind of visuo-spatial associations that allow mathematicians to enjoy leaps in insight leading to mathematical breakthroughs. If we go back in time and measure Ramanujans REM sleep, it may give some indication as to how when he slumbered, insights came to him. Perhaps the absence of the straitjacket of formal training allowed his REM-phase dreams to operate unconstrained and produce novel associations, the kind that formally trained mathematicians might have dismissed as outlandish.
Furthermore, Ramanujan’s ability to concentrate intensely and single-minded thinking about mathematical problems in his waking hours may have seeded the right conditions during subsequent sleep for his brain to form the associations that helped him make the breakthroughs.
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