Data currently being researched indicates that dreams provide a fertile field for the examination of creative processes. The act of dreaming, that most personal and subjective experience, may well be a key to humankind's hidden powers. Many artists, writers, inventors, musicians, and other creative people have received inspiration in their dreams or have used their dreams as problem-solving catalysts.
All through Easter Day in 1920, Dr. Otto Loewi, research pharmacologist at the New York University College of Medicine, pondered a strange dream that revisited the details of an experiment that he had discarded 17 years before. Acetylcholine, the chemical that he had used in the experiment, had first been isolated by Dr. H. H. Dale, Loewi's close friend, in 1914, but the new test inspired by Loewi's dream brought about an abrupt change in the theory of muscle stimulation. Loewi and Dale shared the Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine in 1936.
Although the experiment itself had a striking effect on the academic world of physiology, the manner in which the idea came to Loewi is perhaps even more astounding. It is conceivable that ideas can be transferred from one mind to another during sleep, but when such ideas are not in the mind of another person, from where could they possibly arise? Before his death in 1961, Loewi stated that he could not possibly answer this question. Perhaps no one can, but it is certain that Loewi's dream provided the key to subsequent research that eventually gained him the Nobel Prize.
Solving problems via the dream state is as old as humankind itself. Thomas Edison (1847–1931), the "Genius of Menlo Park," it is said, had the habit of curling up in his roll-top desk to catch brief naps that sometimes constituted his entire sleep schedule. After such a nap he would emerge with the answers to problems that had plagued him during his waking state.
Elias Howe (1819–1867) failed at the conscious level to perfect a workable sewing machine. Then one night he dreamed that a savage king ordered him to invent a sewing machine, and when he was unable to comply, the spear-armed natives raised their weapons to kill him. At that exact moment, he noticed that each spear had a hole in it just above the point. This vision gave him the much-needed clue to the commercial perfection of the sewing machine.
Another famous scientist who used his dreams to solve problems was Niels Bohr (1885–1962), who one night dreamed of a sun composed of burning gas with planets spinning around it, attached by thin threads. He realized that this explained the structure of the atom, which eventually led to the field of atomic physics and, ultimately, atomic energy.
William Wordsworth (1770–1850) credited dreams for the many poems he wrote. "Kubla Khan" was the result of a dream by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834). The classic novel Jane Eyre (1847) was spun from the dreams of Charlotte Brontë (1816–1855).
Some of the world's most successful business executives never make a decision until they have a chance to allow it to pass through their minds during the hours of sleep, permitting solutions to come during dreams. Once this practice of "sleeping on a problem" becomes habit, these successful individuals find that there is really nothing magical about the process of dreaming solutions. Creative dreaming simply appears to be a matter of training the mind to do certain things. The subconscious level of the mind does the work, rather than the intellectual level. The subconscious understands symbols far better than words, and, in general, can be likened to an electronic computer. Material must be fed into it or it cannot produce effective answers. To the intellect, a particular plan may sound silly, but to the subconscious it may make a lot of sense.
The concept of the dream as a creative tool may be somewhat alien to Western thought, but numerous Eastern writings, including the ancient Hindu Upanishads, speak of this aspect of the dream. One of the Upanishads says that "…Man in his dreams becomes a creator. There are no real chariots in that state…no blessings…no joys, but he himself creates blessings, happiness and joys." Psychologists Montague Ullman, Joseph Adelson, Howard Shevrin, and Frederick Weiss have done much to advance the thesis that dreams basically are creative.
Psychoanalyst Ullman cites four creative aspects of dreaming:
Ullman concedes that the final product of a dream's creativity may be either dull or ecstatic, but he insists that it is an act of creation to have the dream in the first place.
Lucid dreaming is simply the technique of dreaming while knowing that one is still dreaming. The word "lucid" is used to indicate a sense of mental clarity. A lucid dream usually occurs while one is in the midst of a dream and suddenly realizes that the experience that he or she is undergoing is not happening in physical reality, but in the framework of a dream scenario. Often the dreamer notices some impossible occurrence in the dream, such as having a conversation with a deceased relative or having the ability to fly, which prompts this awareness. While experiencing lucid dreaming is not quite the same thing as exercising control over one's dreams, the dreamer who realizes that he or she is dreaming may greatly influence the course of the events in the dream scenario. Some practitioners of lucid dreaming promise extended creativity, the ability to overcome nightmares and other sleep problems, the healing of mind and body—and even spiritual transcendence.
Those who teach lucid dreaming state that the two essentials are motivation and effort. Lucid dreaming techniques allow the individual dreamer to focus intention and to prepare a critical mind. The exercises taught by those conducting lucid dreaming workshops range from ancient Tibetan techniques to modern programs developed by dream researchers.