Most of us remain aware of the advantages of sleep, even as we feel we never get enough of it. It resets our inner time clock, calms the nerves, refreshes the spirit, and supposedly helps us to live longer. Well it turns out that productive slumber can actually benefit the entire human race.
Google began as a PhD project by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. They struggled through numerous concepts for how to make the Internet more research savvy. Then one night while asleep, 23 year-old Page got the idea of downloading the entire web on to a computer. As soon as he woke up, he says he, “spent the middle of that night scribbling out the details and convincing myself it would work.” It not only “worked,” it was brilliant.
Back in the 1930s, science believed that nervous impulses were driven by electrical signals. German psychologist Otto Loewi thought there had to be something more, but he couldn’t find it. On Easter Sunday Eve in 1936, he says that, “ it occurred to me that during the night I had scribbled down something important on a notepad while sleeping.” Sure enough on a piece of paper by his bedside was written the idea for an experiment whether or not chemical transmissions could also drive nerve impulses. That dream turned out to be a reality and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts that initially came in a dream.
Elias Howe had already designed the sewing machine in the mid-1800s, but couldn’t figure out how to make the needle function properly. He designed a needle pointed at both ends, with the eye in the middle. It failed and he was frustrated. One night he had a dream that he was taken prisoner by some natives. As they danced around him, he noted that their spears all had holes near their tips. He woke up and immediately set about to design a needle with the hole near the end. His invention went on to change the business and industrial world.
Paul McCartney was just 22 when he arose from his slumber, “with a lovely tune in my head.” He went on to say he wondered what the tune was, where it had come from. He had his band mates were in London filming Help. He got up, went to the piano, and began playing what he recalled from his dream. The song was “Yesterday” – eventually performed by countless artists over seven million times in the latter half of the 20th century.
Dmitry Mendeleyev hadn’t slept for three days and nodded off, exhausted. He had a dream that laid out the arrangements of all the elements. He woke 20 minutes later and, “wrote it down on a piece of paper.” What he had designed was the entire Periodic Table that was to shape the events of discoveries for decades to come.
Whether or not you like vampires or werewolves, you have to admit that author Stephanie Meyer made a fortune out of writing about them. She tells of being asleep and having a dream of a young man and woman. He was a vampire, “and he was trying to explain to the girl how much he cared about her but wanted to kill her at the same time.” She got up, wrote her dream down in the form of a narrative, and the Twilight series went on to earn her a fortune.
There are plenty of other examples, like how Einstein got the idea for the theory of relativity in a dream, or how Lester Hendershot designed the first fuelless motor in his sleep, or even how Sir Frederick Banting got the Nobel Prize-winning idea of how to treat diabetes while sound asleep one night. The list of important discoveries derived through slumber is lengthy and the human race has benefitted more from the sleep than it might have realized.
What any observer would note about most of these occurrences was that the individuals fell asleep wrestling with their problems. Maybe it’s time we started doing the same. Our lives are full and our days pressed with numerous demands, but maybe we need to wrestle with the great public problems that confront us at every turn. We need to figure out how, in a nation of so much wealth, we can’t lift the middle class up any higher than we are. How can a nation of so many smart people have trouble raising productivity standards? Maybe someone can help us figure out how to bring the newer generations into the mainstream of public and economic life in a way that gives them hope for the future. Can someone please sleep on it and find a way for us to develop the supposed new jobs of tomorrow? And how will we solve our great problem of a polarized politics and a tuned-out electorate?
It seems like that when we’re awake we grow more confounded. We need to stew about such things, turn them over in our heads, and toss and turn in our sleep as we attempt to find a way forward that our leaders no longer pursue. I know some of us feel we have miles to go before we sleep, but unless we start coming up with some solutions at the community level, we will wander more than we walk.