Problem Solving in Dreams

Problem Solving in Dreams


Many people have had the experience of being stumped by a particular problem, going to sleep, and waking up with the answer. This common experience may be the source of the familiar expression “I’ll sleep on it.” Although all such experiences are not always accompanied by dreams that directly provide the sought-after information, at least some are. A well-known example of this kind of problem solving in dreams is the experience of the nineteenth-century chemist F.A. Kekule, who was attempting to determine the structure of the benzene molecule. He had been wrestling with this problem for quite some time when he was dozing off in front of his fireplace, fantasizing that he was seeing snakelike benzene molecules dancing in the fire:

My mental eye, rendered more acute by repeated visions of this kind, could now distinguish larger structures, of manifold conformation; long rows, sometimes more closely fitted together, all twining and twisting in snakelike motion. But look! What was that? One of the snakes had seized hold of its own tail and the form whirled mockingly before my eye. As if by a flash of lightning, I awoke as if struck by lightning; this time again I spent the rest of the night working out the consequences. (Cited in Empson, p. 85—see Sources)

Kekule had discovered the key to his problem—that the benzene molecule was arranged in a ring structure—in a hypnagogic experience in which a dancing snake grabbed its own tail and spun around in a circle.

A less famous instance of this kind of phenomenon is the case of H.V. Hilprecht, a Pennsylvania University archeologist:

In 1893 [Hilprecht] was given drawings of fragments of agate excavated from the Babylonian temple of Bal at Nippur. He thought they might be finger rings, but wasn’t sure. In a dream a tall thin priest informed him that the two pieces came from the same votive cylinder and had been cut in two to make earrings for a statue of the god Ninib. Later in the year he visited the museum in Istanbul where the fragments were kept and demonstrated their exact fit. (Empson, p. 85—see Sources)

It is not known exactly what happens during such experiences and during less dramatic incidents in which people fall asleep and awaken with the answer to a problem. Perhaps a different level of the mind—part of the region we designate as the unconscious—goes to work on problems with which the conscious mind is wrestling. During a period when the waking brain processes are relaxed, this other level of mind may communicate its conclusions to the consciousness, resulting in the kinds of experiences reported by Kekule and Hilprecht.

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