Ever had an idea that just "popped" into your head? Awoken in the morning with a great idea? It's a very common phenomenon which has prompted many people to ponder where ideas come from. We wish we had the answer! But so far, no one really knows. The best we can do is to provide some strategies that seem to stimulate creative thought. One of them is what we call "purposeful dreaming," which seems to enhance the probability that a useful idea will "pop" into your mind while you are sleeping.

The concept of "purposeful dreaming" originated in 1931 as a result of a questionnaire sent out by two chemists, Washington Platt and Ross A. Baker, to 200 research directors and 1250 scientists listed in American Men of Science. Platt and Baker received 232 replies. Forty-seven percent of the respondents replied that they had "purposefully invited revelations by creating favorable conditions... by going over the problem just before retiring for the night." (1)

E. B. Spear, an engineer who responded to the Platt-Baker survey, provided a typical example of how "purposeful dreaming" works: "I went to the hotel, had dinner and thought the situation over. I went to bed and slept for several hours. At 3 o'clock in the morning, I awakened with an entirely new process clearly before my mind's eye. I arose and wrote out a patent disclosure. A patent has been since granted. A portion of what I saw as a flash was wrong, but the main principle proved to be valuable." (2)

Walter B. Cannon, a world-famous physiologist, supplies a similar example in his autobiography: "While a student in high school I was occasionally puzzled by ‘originals' in algebra, the solution of which was not at all clear when I went to sleep at night. As I awoke in the morning the proper procedures were immediately evident and the answers were quickly obtained. On an occasion I was handed a complicated toy which was out of order and would not operate. I examined the mechanism carefully but did not see how the defect might be corrected. I resorted to sleep for a solution to the problem. At daybreak, the corrective manipulation appeared thoroughly understandable, and I promptly set the contraption going." (3) Cannon used this strategy purposefully for the rest of his life.

Sleep can be part of the creative process.

Sleep can be part of the creative process.

If creative problem solving required nothing more than going to sleep, we'd all be geniuses. One of the things that Spear and Cannon leave out of their accounts is the often intensive preparation that went into their "purposeful dreaming." Insight, or "illumination" as it is sometimes called, requires the same kind of careful preparation that you need to put into a perennial garden in fall to get spring flowers. In most cases, creative dreams follow an extended period of attempting to solve one's problem by brute force (4). Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke provided an example in one of his novels: "The direct approach had failed," wrote one of his characters. "The only way to find the link - if he ever could - was to leave it to chance and time and the mysterious workings of the unconscious mind. He would do his best to forget about [it] until it chose the auspicious time to erupt in his brain." (5)

But do we really want to leave our creative thinking totally to chance? Nobel Prize-winning chemist Linus Pauling brings us back to Platt and Baker's concept of "purposefully invit[ing] revelations by creating favorable conditions... by going over the problem just before retiring for the night." Pauling (6) wrote that it was not enough to fill your mind with your problem. There's a further step, and that is to do so every night before you fall asleep. Think about the problem and how you have been trying to solve it. Do this every night until you forget to do it. Give up, as Arthur C. Clarke suggests; forget about it. That is when the subconscious mind will kick out an answer to the problem. You'll awake in the middle of the night, or early one morning, with a solution or the germ of a solution as unexpected as a gift from an unknown benefactor.

Will your dreams always yield the answer you need? Unfortunately not. Platt and Baker found that only seven percent of their respondents always had a useful insight from their dreams. The rate of useless ideas ranged from ten to ninety percent for everyone else. But, hey, anything that increases your probability of achieving a creative insight is better than nothing!

Kekulé and elements of his dream.

Kekulé and elements of his dream.

So we recommend the advice of August Kekulé, a 19th century chemist who first conceputalized the architecture of chemical structures while dozing in front of his fire: "Let us dream!" (7)

© 2010 Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein


(1) Platt W, Baker RA. 1931. The relationship of the scientific hunch to research. Journal of Chemical Education 8: 1969-2002.

(2) Ibid, p. 1980

(3) Cannon WB. 1945. The Way of the Investigator. New York: Hafner, p. 57.

(4) Brown RA, Luckcock RG. 1978. Dreams, daydreams, and discovery. Journal of Chemical Education. 55 (11): 694-696.

(5) Clark AC. 1986. The Songs of Distant Earth. New York: Del Rey, p.152.

(6) Pauling L. 1963. The genesis of ideas. Proceedings of the Third World congress of Psychiatry, 1961. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, McGill University Press. Volume 1, pp. 44-47.

(7) Schultz G. 1896. August Kekulé. Berichte der deutsche chemical gesellschaft 23: 1265.

And for more on ideas born of dreams, see <http://www.deeptrancenow.com/dreaming.htm>

About the Author

Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein

Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein are co-authors of Sparks of Genius, The 13 Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People.

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