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The top 10 ideas we owe to sleep’s “informational alchemy” 

Einstein, Shelley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones all owe some of their best work to sleep. How are some of the greatest ideas dreamt up and just how real is the “alchemy” of sleep?

A recent poll has identified the greatest ideas ever conceived whilst asleep. Einstein’s theory of relativity was voted the best concept emanating from sleep by 23% of 4,453 Britons and Americans asked to rank a list of ideas in a poll carried out by YouGov.

Einstein’s famous theory came in ahead of the periodic table on 13% and the sewing machine on 10%. No other idea, including Paul McCartney’s song Yesterday (5%), polled more than single figures.

Einstein allegedly conceived his groundbreaking theory of relativity from a dream about a field of cows surrounded by an electric fence. When he told the farmer who he met in the dream what he’d seen, the farmer’s account differed. This alternative viewpoint gave Einstein the key insight that the same event could look different from different perspectives.

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By contrast, the periodic table of chemical elements, seems to have appeared fully formed to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in his sleep on the night of February 17th, 1869. “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required,” he wrote. “Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”

The principles of analytic geometry are in joint sixth place. They were devised by the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes, who reputedly slept up to 12 hours a day.

Rank

Idea

%

1.

The theory of relativity, by Einstein

23

2.

The periodic table of chemical elements

13

3.

The invention of the sewing machine

10

4.

The model of the atom, conceived by physicist Neils Bohr

7

5.

“Yesterday”, the Beatles song by Paul McCartney

5

6=

“Terminator”, the movie(s) and movie character

3

6=

The principles of analytical geometry, devised by René Descartes

3

8=

“Frankenstein”, the novel by Mary Shelley

2

8=

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, the Rolling Stones song by Keith Richards

2

10=

“The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde”, the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson

1

10=

“Kubla Khan”, the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

1

10=

The discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule

1

The human process of, and need for, sleep, is still not fully understood by science, although the slumbering brain has been credited with some of mankind’s greatest inventions. REM [Rapid Eye-Movement] sleep, and the dreaming process associated with it, is “informational alchemy, from which have come some of the most revolutionary leaps forward in human progress,” says Matthew Walker, a sleep specialist at Berkeley University and author of Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams.

Walker says REM sleep provides us with intelligent information processing that inspires creativity and promotes problem-solving. “Sleep seems to stimulate your mind to make non-obvious connections. It puts all the information from the day into a big biological theatre and forces the mind to speak to people at the back of the theatre, who you may not think you have any connection with. This is the basis of creativity – connecting ideas, events and memories that wouldn’t normally fit together.”

theatre of the mind

Sleep allows us to explore our “biological theatre”

Monsters and hit singles under the bed?

Creativity stemming from sleep goes beyond the scientific theatre. The poll, conducted by YouGov on behalf of sleep and meditation app Calm, included six artistic creations: the songs Yesterday and (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, the plot and characters for Terminator, the Romantic poem Kublai Khan (a creation famously cut short by the arrival of the postman) and the Gothic novels Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde and Frankenstein.

Calm commissioned the poll to mark the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, first conceived by a teenage Mary Shelley in a dream about a corpse being brought back to life by electricity.

“So, was Frankenstein the greatest idea ever conceived while asleep?” asked Michael Acton Smith, co-founder of Calm, “The answer, says our poll, is: ‘No, far from it’.” Nevertheless, calm co-founder, Alex Tew, called the list a “stunning” recognition of “perhaps the greatest single source of creativity”.

The opinions of artists throughout history seem supportive. James Cameron dreamt up Terminator in a dream, while Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones did not even have to write down the opening verse of the song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction as when he woke on the morning of May 7th, 1965, he found that he had unwittingly committed it to a tape recorder during the night.

“Sleep is the only source of invention,” said French writer Marcel Proust, an opinion echoed by his compatriot Saint-Pol-Roux who reportedly left a sign on his bedroom door before sleep that said “Poet at Work”.

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Making sleep work

If you’re trying to capture the muses of somnolence yourself, Calm have provided their own tips:

  1. Keep a Notebook Handy + Write Down Your Dreams

“Write down every dream you can recall rather than being selective. The act of writing them down helps you build a relationship with your subconscious, which should in turn help improve your dream recall.”

2. Ask Your Subconscious The Question You’re Trying to Answer

“‘Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious’, advised Thomas Edison, the great inventor. So, instead of just falling asleep, brief or prime your subconscious to generate new ideas.”

  1. Wake Yourself Mid-Sleep

“Dali would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit on a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He’d then try to doze off so that the spoon would fall and wake him. Edison did something similar but with ball bearings and a saucepan. The aim for both was to jolt themselves awake in order to capture ideas from their dreams.”

  1. Learn to Have “Lucid Dreams”

“Lucid dreaming is the sense of being consciously aware that you are dreaming. This state can help you to explore ideas, control elements of your dream and have better than normal dream recall. Learning to dream lucidly takes time and practice. You need to try repeating a mantra telling yourself that you want to dream or know that you are dreaming and, for example, want to be aware that you are dreaming and to remember the dream.”

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