Ramanujan has not been the only wizard to claim inspiration during sleep. Otto Loewi, the German neuropharmacologist, dreamt the experimental design that he then used to prove that transmissions at synapses was chemical. Another German, the organic chemist Kekule, had dreamt of a snake swallowing its tail, and came up with a idea of the closed ring of carbon atoms, the benzene ring, that is the foundational concept today in the chemistry of organic compounds. The Russian scientist Mendeleyev got his inspiration for the periodic table in a dream. In the words of writer Paul Strathern, in his book titled, Mendeleyev’s dream (2000) –
As Mendeleyev’s eyes ran once more along the line of ascending atomic weights, he suddenly noticed something that quickened his pulse. Certain similar properties seemed to repeat in the elements, at what appeared to be regular numerical intervals. Here was something! But what? A few of the intervals began with a certain regularity, but then the pattern just seemed to peter out. Despite this Mendeleyev was convinced that he was on the verge of a breakthrough. There was a definite pattern somewhere, but he just could not grasp it. Momentarily overcome by exhaustion, he leaned forward, resting his head on his arms, almost immediately he fell asleep and had a dream
And in his dreams, the pieces of the periodic table fell in together in proper order. He woke up and wrote it down and that was the discovery of the periodic table. How might sleep and dreaming contribute to the extraordinary geniuses of these people? The enhancement of creativity by sleep has now been demonstrated in human volunteers in laboratory conditions also.
Given that we already get many of our best insights during sleep, can we manipulate sleep regimes to optimize this? Say in a meeting at corporate offsite discussing problems and solutions, will a short nap break during the meeting allow the participants to rest and come back recharged? How about writers and music composers breaking off during their workday to take a nap and come back recharged with the writer’s block and composers block dissolved in their dreams
Now you know what to do the next time you encounter a tough problem, take a breather, sleep, dream, and embrace your eureka moment
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