When it comes to the great ideas of the world – many were devised while the innovator was sleeping – or in a dream.
Einstein’s theory of relativity has been voted the greatest idea ever inspired during sleep, that according to a new international poll.
Einstein's famous theory topped the list followed by the periodic table of elements and then then invention of the sewing machine in a survey of 4,453 Americans and Britons on behalf of Calm.com, the meditation and sleep app.
The following ideas were all conceived during sleep and/or inspired by dreams. Which ONE of these ideas would you consider the best or “greatest” idea (i.e. in the sense that you’re most glad that someone ever had the idea in question)?
Rank, idea & % of respondents
1 - The theory of relativity, by Einstein - 23%
2 - The periodic table of chemical elements - 13%
3 - The invention of the sewing machine - 10%
4 - The model of the atom, conceived by physicist Neils Bohr - 7%
5 - “Yesterday”, the Beatles song by Paul McCartney - 5%
6 - “Terminator”, the movie(s) and movie character - 3%
6 - The principles of analytical geometry, devised by René Descartes - 3%
8 - “Frankenstein”, the novel by Mary Shelley - 2%
8 - “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”, the Rolling Stones song by Keith Richards - 2%
10 - “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson - 1%
10 - “Kubla Kahn”, the poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge - 1%
10 - The discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule - 1%
None of these - 15%
Don’t know - 16%
More about the poll
The poll was commissioned by the app Calm, recently named Apple’s App of the Year.
Calm helps users relax and sleep with a growing library of sleep music and 80+ bedtime stories for grown-ups known as Sleep Stories.
“It’s a stunning list,” says Alex Tew, co-founder of Calm.
“Sleep is not just vital to health but perhaps the greatest single source of creativity.”
Some items to note
Einstein’s famous theory comfortably topped the poll with 23% of the vote ahead of the periodic table on 13% and the sewing machine on 10%.
No other idea, including “Yesterday” (5%), polled more than single figures.
Einstein’s journey to the theory of relativity reportedly began with a dream about a field of cows surrounded by an electric fence. But when he told the farmer who he met in the dream what he’d seen and the farmer’s account differed, it gave Einstein the key insight that the same event could look different from different perspectives.
The periodic table of chemical elements seems to have appeared fully formed to the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev in his sleep on the night of February 17, 1869. “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required,” he wrote. “Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper. Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”
“Yesterday”, The Beatles song whose tune came to Paul McCartney in his sleep one night in 1964, polled highest of any idea from the arts rather than sciences, ranking fifth overall – one behind the model of atom, devised by the Danish physicist Neils Bohr.
Sixth place in Calm’s poll went jointly to Terminator, the movie character which first appeared to director James Cameron in a dream, and the principles of analytic geometry devised by René Descartes, the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician who reputedly slept up to 12 hours a day.
Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones did not even have to write down the opening verse of the great Stones’ song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction”. When he woke in the morning of May 7, 1965, he found that he had unwittingly committed it to a tape recorder during the night.
“Sleep is the only source of invention," felt Marcel Proust, the great French writer. Winston Churchill agreed that the best time and place to get ideas was when asleep.
The French poet, Saint-Pol-Roux, reputedly hung a sign on his bedroom door before sleep that read, “Le Poète Travaille” [“Poet at Work”]. John Steinbeck, the American author and Nobel laureate wrote, “A problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
How it works
This kind of “intelligent information processing that inspires creativity and promotes problem-solving” is a distinct benefit of REM- [Rapid Eye-Movement] sleep and the act of dreaming, says Matthew Walker, the Berkeley University sleep scientist, in his acclaimed new book, “Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams.”
“Sleep seems to stimulate your mind to make non-obvious connections”, Walker has said. “It puts all the information from the day into a big biological theatre and forces the mind to speak to people at the back of the theatre, who you may not think you have any connection with. This is the basis of creativity – connecting ideas, events and memories that wouldn’t normally fit together.”
REM-sleep, and the dreaming process associated with it, says Walker, is “informational alchemy”, from which have come some of the most revolutionary leaps forward in human progress."
Four Ways To Come Up With Ideas In Your Sleep
Is “Sleep-storming” the new brainstorming?
Not only is it possible to boost your odds of generating ideas while you sleep but there’s even a scientific name for it: “Structured unconscious generative ideation”.
A non-scientific name for it might be “sleep-storming” – as in brainstorming, done solo while you’re asleep.
But can you really train your brain to harvest your sleep for ideas? And is sleep-storming the new brainstorming?
Here are four simple ways suggested by Calm to increase your chances of coming up with ideas while you sleep – and/or capturing the ones that you do.
1 - Keep a Notebook Handy + Write Down Your Dreams
It can be hard to remember your dreams and/or any ideas they inspire. So, always keep a notebook by your bed. Get into the habit of writing down your dreams – and any ideas they might trigger – immediately on waking and almost before you are fully awake. Write down every dream you can recall rather than being selective.
The act of writing them down helps you build a relationship with your subconscious, which should in turn help improve your dream recall.
“I always keep a notebook by my bed,” says Michael Acton-Smith, co-founder of Calm. “I often wake up in the night to jot down ideas – and then do so again first thing in the morning.”
2 - Ask Your Subconscious The Question You’re Trying to Answer
“Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious”, advised Thomas Edison, the great inventor. So, instead of just falling asleep, brief or prime your subconscious to generate new ideas. Before falling asleep, ask yourself the question that you’re trying to answer; then, finally, focus on something else, such as reading or relaxation techniques.
3 - Wake Yourself Mid-Sleep
Waking yourself while dreaming or starting to fall asleep was a technique used by both the artist Salvador Dalí and the inventor Thomas Edison. Dali would put a tin plate on the floor and then sit on a chair beside it, holding a spoon over the plate. He’d then try to doze off so that the spoon would fall and wake him. Edison did similar but with ball bearings and a saucepan. The aim for both was to jolt themselves awake in order to capture ideas from their dreams.
4 - Learn to Have “Lucid Dreams”
Lucid dreaming is the sense of being consciously aware that you are dreaming. This state can help you to explore ideas, control elements of your dream and have better than normal dream recall than. Learning to dream lucidly takes time and practice. You need to try repeating a mantra telling yourself that you want to dream or know that you are dreaming and, for example, want to be aware that you are dreaming and to remember the dream.