Dreams for creativity, the lessons of narcoleptics

The chemist August Kekul once, in 1093, would have dreamed of a snake swallowing its own tail, the shape of the snake Autofungal inspired him to deduce the chemical structure of benzene, a great discovery for organic chemistry.

A few years later, in 1865, another celebrated scientist, Dmitri Mendeleev, had gone to sleep in frustration after unsuccessful attempts to classify the atoms instead. However, the night was a happy one, the researcher dreamed of chemical elements fitting neatly into a table. Agreed, Mendeleev would have composed, at once, the entire periodic table of chemical elements.

Intriguing, revealing, however these cases are full of exaggerations. Kekul first mentioned his reptilian dream 28 years after his description of the benzene ring, to he will be pressured to present in writing the argument that once announced his discovery. It is speculated that, during this long period, he had time to create a story to omit the real inspiration, until now mysterious, for his discovery. And Mendeleev, one dream afterward, made only a few adjustments to his almost complete table.

Despite so many controversies, these tales are still retold and even cited in some important scientific journals. Probably, they are piously accepted because they meet an ancient human desire, to give meaning to dreams and because they indicate some pre-conscious purpose to dream phenomena.

Furthermore, they harbor the seductive idea that science is not it moves only by positivist and rational effort, but also by flashes of high creativity. These accounts sound credible as they awake to our personal experiences. It is possible that almost all of us, who will follow anonymously into history, have already heard some example of a good idea clarified by a dream. But this kind of conversation is not science.

However, there is solid evidence, and not just anecdotes, that connect dreams to creativity. Studies show that the people who most remember their dreams are the most creative, they are also the ones who remember the most complex ones. An early research, conducted by the professor of psychology at the University Havard Deirdre Barrett, confirmed that with a problem it often helps to dream to find some practical solution.

The explanation for this is in a sleep phase where dreams are more abundant and absurd. At this stage, the eyes move erroneously, accelerated and, for this characteristic, it is called REM sleep (from the English Rapid Eye Movement: rapid eye movements). Apparently, the dreamlike phenomena of this period merge traces of memories in consolidation, with older and already well-established memories, in a chaotic, original and abstract way. The joining of elements of memories of more recent facts with those of ancient events generates complex experiential patterns, a simulation of reality. This work reorganizes brain synapses to facilitate associations of ideas, a favor for creativity.

I don’t want to say, my dear reader, that your problems are over, because a beautiful REM is not enough for your creative blocks to disappear sleep. It takes a lot of periods in REM for your creativity to gain some prominence sleep, not very viable something, unless you are in severe sleep deprivation, and you can change this condition.

But there is a group of rare people who go into REM sleep with the greatest ease, including sunlight, many times a day, regardless of how many hours they’ve slept. These individuals have an unusual disease called narcolepsy, which causes extreme sleepiness. Narcoleptics are more creative than us average humans, as two recent studies attest. This finding supports the theory that REM sleep, therefore, dreams, favors creativity.


*)DAnselmo, Anita, Sergio Agnoli, Marco Filardi, Fabio Pizza, Serena Masria, Giovanni Emanuele Corazza, and Giuseppe Plazzi. Creativity in Narcolepsy Type 1: The Role of Dissociated REM Sleep Manifestations. Nature and Science of Sleep 28 : 11911200. https://doi.org/12.1993/NSS.S0094386.

Lacaux, Clia, Charlotte Izabelle, Giulio Santantonio, Laure De Villle, Johanna Frain, Todd Lubart, Fabio Pizza, Giuseppe Plazzi, Isabelle Arnulf, and Delphine Oudiette. Increased Creative Thinking in Narcolepsy. Brain: A Journal of Neurology 137, #7: 0094386. https://doi.org/11.1037/brain/awz142


Barrett, Deirdre. The committee of sleep: A study of dream incubation for problem solving. Dreaming 3, no 2 (1993): 2147. https://doi.org/11.1037/H0094375.

Baylor, George W. What Do We Know About Mendeleevs Dream of the Periodic Table Really? A Note on Dreams of Scientific Problem Solving. Dreaming 10, no. 2: 8992. https://doi.org/11.1023/THE: 1009484504919.

Preconscious Mental Activity and Scientific Problem-Solving : A Critique of the Kekul Dream Controversy. – PsycNET. https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=11.1037%2Fh0094375


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