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Blog 7: Dreams and creativity 

29th May 2020

My last post discussed dreams picking up on weak signs of illness before the symptoms become detectable in the awake state.  These  dreams visualise the incipient disease in a bizarre and creative way. Another dream on this website visualises glaucoma as Bagpuss– the saggy, old cloth cat on children’s TV who is always shown in scenes that fade out into hazy blankness.

Dreaming of Bagpuss

Glaucoma is a eye disease that, without treatment, leads to blindness, it can escape detection for a long time because it affects only peripheral vision.

The Bagpuss example may anticipate eye disease but it also shows that dreams are creative. They associate things your waking mind wouldn’t. Experiments demonstrate. If, during waking hours, you give people a word, say, “table” and ask them to say the first thing that comes into their mind, they make obvious associations- like “chair”. But if you say “table” to someone who has just awoken from a dream, when they are in a hybrid dreamy state, they will ignore predictable associations like “chair” and say less obvious ones like “altar” or “mortuary”.

Our ability in dreams to forge non-obvious associations (while not making the dull, predictable ones, which tend to block the non-obvious ones) makes us creative. Dreamy states generated many artistic works and scientific discoveries. For example, Mary Shelley, visualised Frankenstein.

Imagining Frankinstein

In 1818, she imagined Frankenstein while she was in a hybrid waking dream.

Many scientific discoveries are also dream-inspired. For example, Elias Howe’s  1846 invention of the sewing machine.  His dream, reflecting the unfortunate cultural, rather racist, thought patterns of the time, went like this, ‘I was in Africa and was being chased by wild cannibals. They caught me and placed me in a huge pot. I kept trying to get out but they kept forcing me back in with spears.’ Howe had been wrestling with the problem of how to automate sewing. When he replayed the dream in his mind while awake he saw the spears, which forced him back into the pot, all had holes near their tips.

Needle holes: Top or tip? 

A hand sewing needle has a hole for the thread at the other end from the sharp tip which enters the fabric (see above). But in an sewing machine the hole for the thread is at the sharp tip end. This insight from Howe’s dream of spears with holes at the tips,  solved the automation problem because the sewing machine needle is forced back into the fabric, making a lockstitch.

During dreams, we are in a different state of mind and, as you would expect, a different brain state.  But while awake, if you are daydreaming, your mind/brain shifts into something like a dreamy state- or a waking dream. Two of the most famous lines about the waking dream are from Ode to a Nightingale. After the bird has flown and its song ended,  Keats wonders:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Keats wonders about “waking dreams”. Do we all have them?

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