#179 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 10          October 1995

Cultivate Your Dreams to Find New Solutions
by Sandra Weintraub

Ms. Weintraub, principal of Management Resources, Newtonville, Massachusetts, facilitates seminars in creative problem solving with dreams.  She is also an inventor who has developed several profitable new products.  Phone (617) 332-2990.

Sleeping on the job may be nothing new, but would you be interested in being paid for it?  Suppose you could go to sleep at night and come up with the right answers to your work-related problems?  No time cards required.  Just a nice soft bed, lights out, and a pad and pencil on the nightstand.

That's what happened to Floyd Ragsdale, an employee at duPont, who was having trouble with a machine that manufactured Kevlar fiber, the material in bullet-proof vests.  Because down-time on this machine cost the company $700 a minute, duPont assigned its best engineers to fix the problem, but none were successful.  One night, Ragsdale, an engineer with no college education, had a dream in which he saw the tubes of a machine and springs.  He came to work the next day and told his boss about the dream.  He received a typical reaction:  his boss scoffed and told him to forget about it.  When Ragsdale's shift ended, he went ahead and inserted springs into the tubes, and the machine worked perfectly, saving the company more than $3 million!

Idea Popping

If Edison's dictum is correct, and invention is one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration, then where does that 1% inspiration come from?

Most inventors say ideas just pop into their heads, but why into one person's head and not another?  Could what pops into the head be a flash of intuition arising from the unconscious?  The unconscious mind get its information from many sources--we know much more than we are aware of because we continuously absorb all sorts of information and store it somewhere in our brains.  When an idea "pops out," it may result from a sudden connection between two sometimes very dissimilar bits of knowledge that were lying dormant for a long time in the unconscious.

If we could get ideas to pop out as needed, it would reduce that 99% perspiration factor considerably.  One method that we have been working with is to actively induce intuition by combining brain-jogging experiences with programming dreams.  When the brain is stimulated it begins making connections, linking known information to new concepts; then, before sleeping, dreams are coached to focus on the problem and they take these connections one step further by revealing in cinematic form the creative solution.

If you've ever awakened in the morning and suddenly found the answer to a question you'd been pondering, perhaps your dreams worked out the problem.  You may not remember dreaming, but your unconscious was actively at work while you slept. 

When Dr. F. Banting was searching for the cause of diabetes, he had a dream that told him to tie up the pancreas of a dog and monitor the insulin produced.  He tried it and learned about the balance between sugar and insulin, and how this was out of sync in diabetics.  Then he had another dream showing him how to develop insulin as a drug to treat the disease.

Otto Loewi dreamed of an experiment with frogs to demonstrate the chemical, rather than electrical, nature of nervous impulse transmission.  In the middle of the night, he awoke and scribbled down the idea, but in the morning it was illegible.  The following night, however, the dream recurred, and this time his note was legible--leading to a Nobel Prize in 1936.

A dream led Elias Howe to beat Singer to the patent for the sewing machine.  In the dream, Howe was in a jungle surrounded by natives holding spears, with holes near their tips.  When he woke, he realized that putting the hole near the tip of the needle would make a working sewing machine.

More dreams:  Mendeleyev saw the complete periodic table in a dream.  Herschel "discovered" the planet Uranus in a dream.  Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky heard musical arrangements, from fragments to entire canons, in their sleep.  Bob Dylan recalls composing music from his dreams.  A device that controls the firing of antiaircraft guns was also conceived in a dream, just before the U.S. entered World War II.

While innovations from dreams may appear as serendipitous "quirks;" or perhaps gifts from an unknown source, many people have purposely trained themselves to use their dreams.  Thomas Edison, for example, slept at his workbench holding weights in his hands.  The idea was that when the weights fell from his hands, they would awaken him, and he would recall his dreams.  Perhaps it was this practice that led to over 1,000 patents!

A most remarkable dream was experienced by Al Huang of Bell Labs, who invented the first working optical computer.  For months, he dreamed about armies carrying pails of data and sometimes colliding with one another.  Once, however, the armies marched past each other without colliding.  Huang realized that laser beams could pass through one another--a breakthrough in optical computers.

At a recent meeting of inventors, I asked if anybody had received ideas from dreams.  Several shrugged and said, "all the time," absolutely unfazed by the idea.  For researchers who don’t remember their dreams, is this a wake-up call?

Program Your Dreams

If you want to experiment with using dreams to solve problems, here are some suggestions to crank up your unconscious mind and program your dreams for problem solving:

1.         Keep a dream journal.  Just before retiring, write in detail about the issue you'd like your dreams to help solve.  Writing focuses your conscious mind on the problem and provides subject matter for your dreams.           

2.         As you go to sleep, ask your unconscious to answer your question, and tell yourself that you’ll remember this dream in the morning.  The unconscious mind is usually very good at receiving and following through on suggestions of this type (this is how hypnotists can convince someone to give up cigarettes).  If you can reach your unconscious without interference from your conscious mind--that is, if you can get yourself out of your own way--your unconscious mind will deliver the solution.

3.         As you doze off, repeat your phrase softly to yourself, with the mental expectation of receiving an answer.  If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to the question.

4.         Be sure to record any dream as soon as possible after you awake.  If you awake in the middle of the night, jot down important words or images.  If your dreams come just as you are awaking in the morning, don't get out of bed until you've reviewed the dream and written as much as possible about it in your journal.

5.         If a group is addressing a common problem, schedule two hours late in the day for a team discussion, to get everyone focused on the issue.  The next morning, assemble the group to share dreams and look for common symbols that point toward a solution.

We know that the mere suggestion of using dream information at work is likely to meet with a negative response.  Most people are more receptive to linear thinking (if x and y occur, then z must follow) since it appears to give us a sense of predictability and control.  However, in reality, the most successful inventors and executives admit that they rely on intuition for many major decisions.  ( A recent study of 1,300 executives from Europe, Japan, and South America revealed that 54% admitted to using their intuition to make their most difficult decisions.)

Dreams predict the future.  Floyd Ragsdale’s dream told him that if he put springs in the tubes, the machine would work correctly and it did.  Elias Howe’s dream told him that if he put the hole near the top of the needle, the sewing machine would work.  The dreams of so many inventors, writers, composers, and business executives have taken them into the previously unknown, and mentored their ability to invent, write, and compose something unanticipated.

If you experience the cyberspace of virtual reality, it is only an amazing presentation of what is, not what can be; but try coasting along the world wide net of your dreams, and you will know the unknown and catch a glimpse into the future!

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