Intuition and the Creation of a Better World

Anderson, William

Poems, the seeds of novels, the design of buildings and of cities, music, new ideas in philosophy: there are numerous examples of these appearing first of all in dreams. Mendeleev dreamed the form of the Periodic Table that bears his name and had to make only one slight correction after he had woken from sleep and written out what had been given him. Not only ideas and images come through dreams: the hidden magician can be immensely practical as well. The inventor of the sewing machine, Eli Howe, was held up for years in making a successful machine because he set the eye of the needle in the middle of the shank. One night he dreamed that he had been captured by a savage tribe. The king of the tribe ordered him to finish the machine on pain of death. He was being taken to execution when he saw that in the spears carried by his guards there were eye-shaped holes close to the spear blades. He realized that what was necessary was a needle with an eye near the point. He leaped from bed and quickly made a model of the needle with the eye at its point and that enabled him to make a sewing machine that worked.

An eighteenth-century Chinese artist, Kao Ch'i P'ei, had a dream in which he was taken into a cave by an Immortal and shown paintings more wonderful than anything he had ever seen. Desperate to copy them, he had no brushes with him but there was some water in a hollow of the cave wall. So he used his fingers to copy them. When he came out of the dream he realized he had discovered a new technique, that of finger painting, which he employed to great effect in his own work and which was taken up and used by many other artists.

Experimental techniques have been given to scientists in dreams. Otto Loewi won the Nobel Prize in 1936 for his discovery that the nerve impulse is both a chemical and an electrical event. He had had an intuition early in his career that this might be the case but could think of no experiment to test his idea. Seventeen years later this happened:

"The night before Easter Sunday of that year (1920) 1 awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of this paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six 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 three 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 seventeen years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog's heart according to the nocturnal design. Its results became the foundation of the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse."

Perhaps the most influential dreams in the history of scientific thought were the three dreams René Descartes experienced on the night of 10 November 1619 in Ulm. He was then a young officer taking part in the early campaigns of the Thirty Years' War. First he dreamed that in a strong gale he was trying to reach the church of the Jesuit college where he had been educated. At the moment when he turned to greet someone the wind blew him away violently against the church. Then someone else handed him a melon. At this he woke up in pain and he prayed for protection. He dreamed a second time: a noise like a bolt of lightning terrorized him and a shower of sparks filled the room. In the third dream he saw on a table a dictionary and an anthology of the poets open at a passage of Ausonius: quod vitae sectabor iter, ('What path shall I follow in life?') An unknown man handed him verses in which the words 'Est et Non' caught his eye. At the end of this dream he dreamed first that the second dream of the shower of sparks was a dream and then he was given the interpretation of the dictionary, the poem and the Latin phrase. He saw the dictionary as the future unity of all the sciences, the poem as the union of philosophy and wisdom and the phrase 'Est et Non' as truth and falsity in human attainment and in secular sciences. The first two dreams he took as warnings about his past life – the melon, for example, means his love of solitude that he had sought for selfish reasons. The lightning is the spirit of truth and it was this that indicated in the third dream his task of unifying the sciences. He immediately began writing the work later published as Discours sur la méthode. The account of his dreams offers a succinct example of the creative moment as being a moment of simplification, of making clear what the tasks are that lie ahead.

William Anderson, The Face of Glory, pp. 161-162

There is a huge hunger to know about the nature of the cosmos. We intuitively feel that the inner exploration of our natures is linked to the exploration of our planet, our solar system and the wider universe, that there is an identity between our highest selves and the mystery of the intelligence in creation.

We possess in our endowment of the poetic imagination a means of judging and evaluating the cosmological theories now current because all cosmologies are based on metaphor. We may not understand the mathematics that guide our astrophysicists on their mental journeys but we can grasp and judge the quality of the metaphors and images in which they express their ideas. Past cosmological systems can be seen very clearly at times as projections on to the heavens of social, political and religious preoccupations among the societies that developed these systems. We should be detached enough now to be able to do the same to current twentieth-century ideas.

William Anderson, The Face of Glory: Creativity, Consciousness and Civilization, pp. 106-107

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