Monday, 8 September 2014

Why We Dream: Part 3 - Invention and dreams

Here is the third of a new Human Givens Blog series, extracts from Chapter 7 of the book Why We Dream: The definitive answer.

Part 1 - Solving Problems: Creativity and Dreams 
Part 2 - Stages in the creative process 

Invention and dreams

The development of the technique for making lead shot is a good example of a solution becoming incorporated into the surface structure of a dream metaphor which is expressing an ongoing concern of the dreamer. In 1782 William Watts invented the process that enabled lead shot to be made in regular shapes and sizes. One night, coming home from a drinking session, he decided to sleep it off in the porch of the church near his home. During the night it rained heavily and he had the following dream. He dreamed that his wife was pouring drops of molten lead on top of him from the roof of the church. No doubt he was apprehensive of the scolding (scalding) his wife would give him when he got home, and this provided the metaphor of his wife (who was not actually seen in the dream) expressing her hostility by pouring molten lead on him. In other words, his dream expressed the feeling that he would get ‘shot’ when his wife got her hands on him.

 Watts was an observant plumber who was well used to working with lead and familiar with the way molten lead behaves. He already knew that molten lead dropped through the air would form perfect spherical lead balls. He was also aware of the problems involved in making lead shot. Therefore, it is highly possible that his unconscious could have already solved the problem before he had the dream. Although the solution had ‘incubated’, the ‘illumination’ had yet to take place. The solution is incorporated into the surface structure of the dream metaphor.

When Watts woke up he immediately saw that he had a means of making lead shot of a regular shape and size. He carried out an experiment to test the illumination. With the help of his wife (who had presumably cooled down by then) he dropped molten lead from a considerable height – in fact from the very church roof he had dreamt about – and it did indeed form perfect lead shot as it fell through the air and cooled. This very same process is still used today.

A further example is the invention, in 1846, of the first practical sewing machine. For years an inventor called Elias Howe had been trying to build a sewing machine but, like everyone else who was trying to do the same thing at that time, he couldn’t make his designs work. But he was desperate to succeed because he was being hard pressed for money by his creditors. A solution eluded him and his struggle seemed fruitless. Then, one night, he dreamed that he was chased and captured by a savage tribe who told him they would spear him to death within 24 hours if he didn’t solve the problem. They tied him to a stake and began dancing wildly round him, waving their spears and getting closer all the time. As they got closer and closer he got more and more desperate and, when they seemed on the point of killing him, he suddenly noticed that all of their spears had an eye hole near the point. He woke with a start, remembered the dream, and realised at once that this was the solution to his problem. The eye in the needle needed to be on the opposite end from that on a hand-held needle. The model of the hand-held needle may have conditioned his conscious mind, making it difficult for him to see that the functional elements of a needle would have to be rearranged if it was to work on a sewing machine.

The solution ‘hitched a ride’ up to consciousness, as it were, by being incorporated into the surface imagery of the dream metaphor that was expressing his frustration at being pressurised by his creditors (the savages in the dream). This one dream changed the working lives of millions.

The evidence, therefore, suggests that there are two possible ways that dreams may provide solutions to problems. Firstly, if a person has worked on a problem for which he has not yet found a solution, then goes to bed expecting to dream one, he may just dream a metaphorical solution. However, according to the expectation fulfilment theory, this requires (a) that he has an emotionally arousing expectation that the solution to the problem will be revealed in a dream, (b) that his creative mind reaches a solution to the problem before he dreams, (c) that the solution does not reach consciousness before dreaming, and (d) that he recalls the dream in which the solution appears. We would suggest that this could only be successful for a short time. As soon as the person has experienced not dreaming the correct solution (which is bound to happen sooner or later), then it will no longer be possible to generate the necessary emotionally- arousing expectation that a dream is going to provide the answer.

A second and perhaps more likely possibility is that the surface structure of a dream whose metaphorical content expresses a different waking concern may, on occasion, provide the vehicle to express the solution to a particular problem. But this would only occur when the creative mind has incubated a solution and is looking for an opportunity to express it – as with the discovery of the ‘benzene ring’ and the invention of the sewing machine.

So dreams in which problems are solved do not present a difficulty for this new theory about why we dream. Indeed, such solutions emerge in a form that is in accordance with what the theory would predict.

Part 4: Consolidation of learning during sleep

Knowing the basics of the expectation fulfilment theory of dreaming will enhance your enjoyment of this blog series, so if you are not already familiar with it, watch this talk, or read this page of the Why We Dream website.

Of course you could read the entire book, (The Kindle version is only £4.99!) where all references can be found.

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