Problem-solving in dreams (famous examples)


In dreams, while our conscious mind is inactive, our subconscious mind is actively working on problems that we may have failed to solve consciously in our waking life. That’s why it’s highly likely that a solution to a problem that you’ve been working on for quite a while can pop up in your dream.

This is similar to when, for example, you are thinking hard about a problem and then you let go of it because you can’t come up with a solution. And then after a while, when you’re involved in some other unrelated activity, the solution to your problem suddenly pops up from nowhere. You say you had an insight.

This happens because as soon as you let go of the problem consciously, your subconscious mind is still working on solving it behind the scenes.

Once it solves the problem, it gets ready to launch the solution into your consciousness as soon as it comes across a trigger that’s in some way similar to the solution- an image, a situation, a word, etc.

Examples of some famous solutions found in dreams

Dreams not only help you understand your own psychological makeup but also solve your complex daily life problems for you. If you aren’t maintaining a dream journal yet, the following anecdotes will surely motivate you to record your dreams…

Structure of benzene

August Kekule had been trying to figure out how atoms in the benzene molecule arranged themselves but couldn’t come up with a plausible explanation. One night he dreamed of dancing atoms that gradually arranged themselves in the form of a snake.

The snake then turned around and swallowed its own tail, forming a ring-like shape. This figure then kept dancing in front of him.

Upon waking up Kekule realized that the dream was telling him that benzene molecules were made of rings of carbon atoms.

The problem of the shape of the benzene molecule was solved and a new field called aromatic chemistry came into existence that significantly advanced the understanding of chemical bonding.

problem solving in dreams

Transmission of nerve impulses

Otto Loewi believed that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically but he had no way to demonstrate it. For years he searched for ways to prove his theory experimentally.

One night he dreamed of an experimental design that he could possibly use to prove his theory. He carried out the experiments, published his work and finally confirmed his theory. He later won a Nobel prize in medicine and is widely regarded as the ‘father of neuroscience’.

Mendeleev’s periodic table

Mendeleev wrote names of the different elements along with their properties on cards that he laid out in front of him on his table. He arranged and re-arranged the cards on the table trying to figure out a pattern.

Exhausted, he fell asleep and in his dream he saw the elements getting arranged in a logical pattern according to their atomic weights. Thus the periodic table was born.

The golf swing

Jack Nicklaus was a golf player who hadn’t been doing well lately. One night he dreamed that he was playing very well and noticed that his grip on the golf club was different than what he actually used in the real world. He tried the grip that he’d seen in the dream and it worked. His golfing skills greatly improved.

The sewing machine

This is the anecdote that I found most fascinating. Elias Howe, the inventor of the modern sewing machine, faced a great dilemma while making the machine. He didn’t know where to provide an eye to his sewing machine needle. He couldn’t provide it at the tail, as is usually done in hand-held needles.

One night, after he had spent days figuring out a solution, he saw a dream in which he had been assigned the task of making a sewing machine by a king. The king gave him 24 hours to make it or else he would be executed. He struggled with the same problem of the needle eye in the dream. Then the time of execution arrived.

While he was being carried by the guards for execution, he noticed their spears were pierced at the tips. He had found the answer! He should provide the eye to his sewing machine needle at its pointed tip! He begged for more time and whilst begging he woke up. He rushed to the machine that he had been working on and solved his problem.

Dreams and creativity

Dreams can not only provide us with solutions to problems but also give us creative insights.

Stephen King’s plot for his famous novel Misery was inspired by a dream, so was Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight. Mary Shelly, the creator of the Frankenstein monster, had actually seen the character in a dream.

The Terminator, created by James Cameron, was also inspired by a dream. Paul McCartney of The Beatles one day ‘woke up with a tune in his head’ and the song ‘Yesterday’ now has the Guinness world record for the greatest number of covers.