13 World-Changing Ideas That Came from Dreams (Literally)
From classic novels to scientific breakthroughs to box-office blockbusters, some of our most important innovations were inspired by our subconscious.
1. The Theory of Relativity
A field of cows inspired Albert Einstein‘s theory of relativity, which, according to a calm.com survey, is one of the most important ideas that ever came out of sleep. In his dream, Einstein was telling a farmer about cows being surrounded by an electric fence, but the farmer saw something different. Einstein awakened with the realization that the same event could vary from different perspectives, and the theory of relativity began to take shape.
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2. The Periodic Table
Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev was exhausted from three days of trying to classify the 56 elements when he decided to sleep on it. “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper,” Mendeleev wrote in his diary. “Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”
3. The Sewing Machine
Elias Howe was exhausted from his attempts to develop a machine that could stitch together fabric. Asleep, he dreamt that cannibals were preparing to cook him as they danced about waving spears—and the spears had a hole at the sharp tip. Eureka! That’s when Howe got the idea to pass the thread through the point of the needle instead of the end, explains author David Jones in his book The Aha! Moment: A Scientist’s Take on Creativity.
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4. The Model of the Atom
In 1922, Danish physicist Niels Bohr received the Nobel Prize in Physics for conceiving the model of the atom. He was snoozing away when he had a vision of the planets attached to pieces of string circling the sun. He woke up from this dream and suddenly could envision the movement of electrons, reports calm.com. “Sleep is not just vital to health but perhaps the greatest single source of creativity,” explains Alex Tew, co-founder of Calm.
While many Beatles’ songs have a dream-like quality, it was the legendary song “Yesterday” that came to Paul McCartney in an actual dream. The Financial Times reports that McCartney woke up with the melody playing in his head. Although McCartney now had the tune of the song, he didn’t have an idea for the lyrics, so he put together some lines about scrambled eggs as a placeholder.
6. Analytical Geometry
On Nov. 10, 1619, German soldier René Descartes had a series of three dreams, which went on to change the course of his life—and our modern world. The dreams, particularly the third one, spurred him to question the nature of reality. Determined to find the truth in human knowledge, he quit the army the next year to study mathematics and philosophy. He then went on to create the field of analytical geometry and also became the founder of modern rationalism.
“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” This is how author Mary Shelley described the lucid dream that led to her classic novel.
Keith Richards, guitarist of The Rolling Stones, is just as talented asleep as he is awake—at least according to how the mega-hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was created. As he describes the history-making moment to NPR: “I go to bed as usual with my guitar, and I wake up the next morning, and I see that the tape is run to the very end. And I think, ‘Well, I didn’t do anything. Maybe I hit a button when I was asleep.’ So I put it back to the beginning and pushed play and there, in some sort of ghostly version, is [the opening lines to ‘Satisfaction’]. It was a whole verse of it. And after that, there’s 40 minutes of me snoring. But there’s the song in its embryo, and I actually dreamt the damned thing.”
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9. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Unlike many of the other world-changing ideas mentioned here, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t originate after a night of sweet slumber; the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to Robert Louis Stevenson during a drug-induced nightmare. His dream-induced screams disturbed his wife, Fanny, who angrily woke him up. Startled, he said to her, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” The nightmare took a terrible turn when Fanny thought the first draft of the story was nonsense—and she burned it. Stevenson feverishly rewrote the 30,000 word story over a three-day period. Sure enough, it ended up selling so well that the book lifted the Stevensons out of debt.
10. Kubla Khan
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was in an unusually deep sleep when he came up with his famous poem, according to a note scrawled on the manuscript on display at the British Library in London. Coleridge had taken opium for pain; after drifting off, he had the dream that inspired his Romantic classic.
11. The Structure of a Molecule
The structure of the benzene ring supposedly came to Friedrich August Kekulé, a German chemist, in a dream, but several versions of that dream have been written about. The most well-known version—and the one Kekulé himself spoke about in a speech at benzene symposium in 1890—was of a self-devouring snake. This, Kekulé said, led him to develop the ring shape for the molecule, and his illustrated structure demonstrated how atoms could be arranged with chemical bonds.
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12. Theory of Evolution
Charles Darwin may get all the glory when it comes to the the theory of evolution, but scientist Alfred Russel Wallace thought of it too. During an eight-year expedition to what is now Indonesia, Wallace collected and studied thousands of animal specimens. By 1855, Wallace concluded that living things evolve—but he didn’t figure out how until 1858 when a fever dream sparked the epiphany: Animals evolve by adapting to their environment.
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Yep, this teenage romance story came to author Stephenie Meyer in a dream. But the vampire story wasn’t your standard boy meets girl romance: “It was two people in kind of a little circular meadow with really bright sunlight, and one of them was a beautiful, sparkly boy and one was just a girl who was human and normal, and they were having this conversation,” said Meyer about her dream. “The boy was a vampire, which is so bizarre that I’d be dreaming about vampires, and he was trying to explain to her how much he cared about her and yet at the same time how much he wanted to kill her.” Meyer’s vampire stories became a sensation among teens and adults alike. Besides hitting the bestseller list and selling 70 million books worldwide, Twilight became a box office hit at the movies earning upwards of $380 million.
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Originally published as 13 World-Changing Ideas That Came from Dreams (Literally) on ReadersDigest.com.