What Does Science Owe to Dreaming? And It's Not Pizza!

by Ron Masa Ph.D.

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Many people, and certainly many scientists, think dreams are trivial and meaningless fantasies. Probably the side effect of late night pizza-eating. Let us examine the "pizza hypothesis." Consider, first, the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev. He was a professor at Saint Petersburg in the 1860's where he was struggling, without much success, to find some order in the chemical elements according to their atomic weights.

Having intensely focused his waking efforts on this task, he fell asleep only to dream an answer to his waking question. He "saw in a dream, a table where all the elements fell into place as required." From the notes he made upon waking, and with only one minor change, Mendeleyev published the Periodic Table of Elements which graces the wall of so many hard-science classrooms today; rooms in which dreaming is rarely given any credibility (or credit) whatsoever. (This seems a little ungrateful.) It may be disturbing to some rationalists that the "hard sciences" rest, in part, upon the ethereal imagery of our dreams.

And there's more to the story: If Mendeleyev's dream had merely outperformed Mendeleyev's waking ability to reorganize the known facts it would already be an impressive performance (for a pizza). However, based on his dream table, our "scientific dreamer" predicted the existence of three non-existent elements! Three new mystery elements were announced along with their properties. How brash can one be with only a dream to go on?

All three of the elements which Dmitri designated were discovered within fifteen years and can now be found on our modern day wall charts. Stop by your nearest physics, science, or chemistry lab to see a dream that came true.

Then there was that dreamy adolescent, doing so poorly in school, and so resentful of authority, who dreamed he was on a sled, far away from school, riding merrily along. Soon, the sled began accelerating almost beyond belief until the stars in the heavens around him were transformed in dazzling fashion as he approached the speed of light! What power and beauty he saw that night! This adolescent fantasy-of-the-night was credited later in life, by Albert Einstein, as the earliest source he could recall for the Theory of Relativity.

Einstein's famous "gedunken" or "thought experiments," which he used to explore and to explain new theoretical principles all follow the same pattern as this early dream drama. Here's the equation: Albert's dream + Albert's brilliance and hard work = A New World View for all of us. Later Einstein wrote, "To punish me for my contempt for authority, Fate made me authority, too." It's all in a night's work.

A well known story of the "sleepy scientists" is that of Friedrich von Kekule. The benzene molecule was the puzzle which obsessed him. How was it structured? How to conceive of it? You guessed it: start with diligent conscious effort, then fall asleep. Since the source of dreams is so superior to our waking mind, we seem to get much smarter when they knock us out, cold.

In his dream, Kekule saw strings of atoms performing before him like a chorus line of chemical clog-dancers. Finally, long rows began to twist in a snake-like fashion until one "snake" seized its own tail in its mouth and whirled around and around: Ouroboros on a merry go round. With much further work (while he was awake, mind you!) this dream image became the Benzene Ring, a concept which revolutionized organic chemistry.

The ancient image of a snake eating its own tail is an archetypal symbol of life living on life, and of wholeness and circularity which has appeared in waking art and dreaming life all around the globe.

We have,ourselves, come full circle from the myth of "meaningless fantasies" and the "indigestion theory" of dreams. To be fair, nocturnal physical discomfort might awaken one enough to improve dream recall, but let's not give it full credit. Consider Kekule's advice to a convention of his fellow scientists in 1890: "Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth." In that case: "Gentlemen, make mine, pepperoni!"

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Ron Masa, Ph.D. taught and wrote about dreams while in private practice for 25 years. He and Debbie Hart co-lead the University of Yourself (http://www.UniversityofYourself.com).

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