Creativity and Dreaming

Creativity and Dreaming


The role of dreams in promoting creativity is, like many other issues in this area, unclear. Does paying attention to one’s dreams actually stimulate one’s creativity, or does dream material simply provide inspiration for creative work? (Most discussions of creativity and dreams focus on the latter assumption.) Is there a meaningful distinction between creativity in dreams and problem solving in dreams?

With respect to the last question, consider, for instance, the experience of the nineteenth-century chemist F.A. Kekule, who was attempting to determine the structure of the benzene molecule. Dozing off in front of his fireplace one evening, he dreamed of snakelike benzene molecules dancing in the fire. At one point one of the snakes latched onto its own tail and began spinning. In this surreal hypnagogic experience Kekule discovered the key to his problem—that the benzene molecule was arranged in a ring pattern. Here it seems that this scientist’s dreamlike experience embodied creative problem solving.

In the more purely artistic realm, artists of all types receive inspiration in dreams. One of the better-known examples is the experience of the eighteenth-century violinist Giuseppe Tartini, who had a dream in which the devil played a tune that so enchanted him that he immediately awoke and attempted to capture as much of it as he could remember. The resulting piece, the Devil’s Trill, became his most famous composition.

Finally, in traditional societies creative inspiration from dreams cannot be meaningfully separated from spirit guidance through dreams. In a study of the Mistassini Cree, for example, Adrian Tanner remarks that “Power … is sometimes thought to arrive in dreams, in the form of formulae for songs, or shamanistic techniques, or ideas for the decoration of clothing or other objects” (p. 126—see Sources). Thus, for the Cree, as for other traditional peoples, religious revelation and artistic inspiration blend together in an indistinguishable whole.