- The Scientific Method
- The Discovery of Runes in Germanic Mythology
- The Theory of Evolution
- The Periodic Table
- The Mechanism of Nerve Signals
- The Structure of Benzene
- The Sewing Machine
- Other Candidates
Dreams have been known to be a powerful source of knowledge and understanding when we can interpret them properly. In antiquity they were even used for predicting the future. This though is generally seen as superstitious nonsense by the modern scientific community. Regardless of the truth of this matter there are non-predictive dreams (visions) that have also impacted humanity in greatly transformative ways. In fact some of the legs of science itself have roots in visions and dreams. Here I’ve collected a non-exhaustive list of the ones that I thought were notable.
# The Scientific Method
René Descartes contributed significantly to the development of The Scientific Method with his opus: “Discourse on the Method”. This work was inspired through a vision and dreams while he was a mercenary. Take note of the book of knowledge that appears and disappears. This is a common theme in dreams and visions. Another interesting part is the phrase: being “Possessed by a Genius”.
The vision was preceded by a state of intense concentration and agitation. Descartes overheated mind caught fire and provided answers to tremendous problems that had been taxing him for weeks. He was possessed by a Genius, and the answers were revealed in a dazzling, unendurable light. Later, in a state of exhaustion, he went to bed and dreamed three dreams that had been predicted by this Genius.
In the first dream he was revolved by a whirlwind and terrified by phantoms. He experienced a constant feeling of falling. He imagined he would be presented with a melon that came from a far-off land. The wind abated and he woke up. His second dream was one of thunderclaps and sparks flying around his room. In the third dream, all was quiet and contemplative. An anthology of poetry lay on the table. He opened it at random and read the verse of Ausonius, “Quod vitae sectabor iter” (What path shall I take in life?). A stranger appeared and quoted him the verse “Est et non” (Yes and no). Descartes wanted to show him where in the anthology it could be found, but the book disappeared and reappeared. He told the man he would show him a better verse beginning “Quod vitae sectabor iter.” At this point the man, the book, and the whole dream dissolved.
What was the idea that Descartes saw in a burning flash? He tells us that his third dream pointed to no less than the unification and the illumination of the whole of science, even the whole of knowledge, by one and the same method: the method of reason. from Descartes’ Dream, by Phillip J. Davis and Reuben Hirsh
# The Discovery of Runes in Germanic Mythology
Odin was known for his wisdom and sacrificed much for it including one of his eyes. In another story he discovered Runes which are a combination of letters and symbolic representations of larger esoteric ideas. Through nine days of self-inflicted torture they were revealed:
I know that I hung on a wind-rocked tree,
nine whole nights,
with a spear wounded, and to Odin offered,
myself to myself;
on that tree, of which no one knows
from what root it springs.
Bread no one gave me, nor a horn of drink,
downward I peered,
to runes applied myself, wailing learnt them,
then fell down thence. Benjamin Thorpe translation (1907:44–45).
Following the ordeal:
Then I was fertilized and became wise;
I truly grew and thrived.
From a word to a word I was led to a word,
From a work to a work I was led to a work.
Daniel McCoy translation
# The Theory of Evolution
Alongside Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace co-discovered Natural Selection. In Wallace’s case he came to the revelation during a Malarial Fever Dream:
According to his recollections, he was lying in bed one day […] suffering from a “rather severe” attack of malaria. Never far from his mind, even in such trying moments, was the main impetus for traveling to the ends of the earth, the problem that had obsessed him for a decade… [How and why do species change so markedly?]… With such thoughts tormenting him—and in a “cold fit,” wrapped up in a blanket… In the space of two hours that had elapsed between the onset of chills and their subsidence in a pool of sweat, Wallace said that he had devised the entire theory of natural selection… The heretic in Darwin’s court: the life of Alfred Russel Wallace by Slotten, Ross A. p. 144
# The Periodic Table
The periodic table of elements was discovered by Dmitri Mendeleev and organized into it’s current form via a dream:
“I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.” Dmitri Mendeleev
# The Mechanism of Nerve Signals
Before Otto Loewi it was not known how nerves transmitted signals. Was it electrical? Chemical? Otto discovered the mechanism via a dream:
“The night before Easter Sunday of  I awoke, turned on the light and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at 6.00 o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at 3.00 o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design.” Otto Loewi
As a result of his experiment he earned the Nobel Prize in 1936. 1
# The Structure of Benzene
August Kekulé was an Organic Chemist in the 1800s. He’s most famous for his discovery of the structure of Benzene.
During my residence in Ghent in Belgium, I lived in an elegant bachelor apartment on the main street. However, my study was situated along a narrow alley and had no light during the day. for a chemist who spends the day in the laboratory this was not a disadvantage. There I was sitting, working on my textbook, but it was not going well; my mind was on other matters. I turned my chair toward the fireplace and sank into half sleep [Halbschlaf] Again the atoms fluttered before my eyes, This time smaller groups remained modestly in the background. My mind’s eye, sharpened by repeated visions of a similar kind, now distinguished larger forms in a variety of combinations. Long lines, often fitted together more densely ; everything in motion, twisting and turning like snakes. But look, what was that? One of the snakes had seized its own tail, and the figure whirled mockingly before my eyes. I awoke as by a stroke of lightning, and this time, too, I spent the rest of the night working out the consequences of the hypothesis. August Kekulé, Benzolfest, 1890
# The Sewing Machine
Elias Howe inventions the sewing machine was finalized after many failures thanks to a dream:
In continuing to imitate the motions of his wife’s all too busy needle, Howe made the needles of his early failures with a hole in the middle of the shank. His brain was busy with the invention day and night and even when he slept. One night he dreamed, so the story goes, that he was captured by a tribe of savages who took him a prisoner before their king.
“Elias Howe,” roared the monarch, “I command you on pain of death to finish this machine at once.”
Cold sweat poured down his brow, his hands shook with fear, his knees quaked. Try as he would, the inventor could not get the missing figure in the problem over which he had worked so long. All this was so real to him that he cried aloud. In the vision he saw himself surrounded by dark-skinned and painted warriors, who formed a hollow square about him and led him to the place of execution. Suddenly he noticed that near the heads of the spears which his guards carried, there were eye-shaped holes! He had solved the secret! What he needed was a needle with an eye near the point! He awoke from his dream, sprang out of bed, and at once made a whittled model of the eye-pointed needle, with which he brought his experi- ments to a successful close. A Popular History of American Invention. (Waldemar Kaempffert, ed.) Vol II, NewyYork Scribner’s Sons, 1924, pg. 385.
# Other Candidates
If you are aware of other dream or visionary discoveries like those above I’d like to see them. There are others I considered adding but the details about the inspirations are murky or the impact of the revelation didn’t meet an arbitrary threshold I had. For example:
Grigori Perelman proved the Poincaré conjecture and consumes mushrooms. Did he dance on the edges of the waking world to aid his efforts?
The naturalist Louis Agassiz had a difficulty determining the morphology of a fossilized fish and didn’t want to risk exposing more and possibly damaging it. Through a number of dreams the form became clear. While an interesting story, it didn’t quite make the list as a major enough discovery IMO. You may disagree. You can read more about Agassiz’s Fish on the following page.
I made a conscious choice to not include religious related dreams/visions/revelations due to debate over their status being dream-inspired or not. I may revisit this decision in the future. Some examples being:
- The Temptation of Christ
- The Burning Bush
- The Ten Commandments
- Native American Vision Quests
A key point to keep in mind that the “dreams” do not require sleeping. A common theme you’ll notice is high stress and fasting to trigger the visions.
A visionary correspondence I personally find profound but does not fit the categorization of this post is about the Yggdrasil which you may know of. Were you also aware that the same imagery was drawn by Peruvian Shamans? It even includes the world encompassing serpent. I first came across this in one of Jordan Peterson’s lectures. This is a clue that the idea of was not invented but discovered through some means. If that’s the case then perhaps some of the lost texts of mythology could be re-derived. There is alot of speculation based on archaeology which is scant.