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Judith Duerk: “Sometimes dreams alter the course of an entire life.”

Indeed, some dreams have served as pivotal points in many people’s lives. In other cases, dreams have changed the life courses of entire peoples, countries, and even imposing civilizations. Yet more incredibly, several dreams have altered history altogether.

Most people have heard or read at least one account of a truly impressive dream of some outstanding personality. This article is meant to compile a “mini-anthology” of famous crucial dreams commonly found in various reading sources, whether pure reality, over-embellished recollections, willful self-aggrandizements or even outright fabrication.

Perhaps the most famous momentous dream ever known is mentioned in the Bible, according to which, one day a Pharaoh had a dream that went like this: “Seven plump cattle came out of Nile to forage. Then, seven gaunt cattle appeared from the Nile and devoured the previous ones. In the next scene of the same dream, seven rich ears of corn were devoured by seven thin and ragged ears of corn.”

The Pharaoh was long puzzled and tormented by this dream until, one day, he asked several of his helpers and advisors to elucidate this confusing dream for him. Shortly afterwards, an astute counselor – Joseph – accurately explained that the dream was an omen which indicated seven subsequent prosperous years, followed by seven years of utter famine that would wipe out any sign of the former prosperity. The Pharaoh accepted the interpretation to good advantage by stockpiling the excess grain during the following seven years, so that he could cope with the subsequent years of famine.

The oldest real-life account of an ominous dream was registered by Suetonius (The Twelve Caesars, AD 120), according to which, on the night before Caligula’s assassination, the great Roman emperor had a dream in which he was standing right beside Jupiter’s divine throne, when, suddenly the god kicked him with the great toe of his right foot and sent him tumbling down to earth.

Another one similar case happened to President Abraham Lincoln, who had an ominous dream shortly before his murder. He was much troubled by the dream that went like this:

"About ten days ago, I retired very late. I had been up waiting for important dispatches from the front. I could not have been long in bed when I fell into a slumber, for I was weary. I soon began to dream. There seemed to be death-like stillness about me. Then I heard subdued sobs, as if a number of people were weeping. I thought I left my bed and wandered downstairs. There the silence was broken by the same pitiful sobbing, but the mourners were invisible. I went from room to room; no living person was in sight, but the same mournful sounds of distress met me as I passed along. It was light in all the rooms; every object was familiar to me; but where were all the people who were grieving as if their hearts would break? I was puzzled and alarmed. What could be the meaning of all this? Determined to find the cause of a state of things so mysterious and so shocking, I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. Around it were stationed soldiers who were acting as guards; and there was a throng of people, some gazing mournfully upon the corpse, whose face was covered, others weeping pitifully. "Who is dead in the White House?" I demanded of one of the soldiers "The President" was his answer; "he was killed by an assassin! Then came a loud burst of grief form the crowd, which awoke me from my dream. " (Ward Hill Lamon, Recollections of Abraham Lincoln, 1847-1885, 1911)

An analogue dream that saved a person but doomed humanity occurred during the First World War when, a young infantryman, Adolf Hitler dreamed that he was being buried under a torrent of earth and red-hot iron. Presently he woke up in his slit trench and immediately left it, in spite of the warnings of his fellow soldiers. He had hardly climbed out when a shell hit the trench, burying his comrades under mud and shrapnel. Perhaps, if it weren’t for this dream, no one would have ever heard the name that nowadays rings a bell of utter awe or profound lamentation even to little children.

An even more enigmatic dream, albeit not so important for humankind, is associated with Mihail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, a versatile scientist and poet, the founder of the Moscow State University, the reformer of the Russian literary language, also widely considered the creator of the Russian higher education and the initiator of Russian science in general. Mihail’s father, however, was a modest fisherman who used to take his young son to the Northern Sea to assist him in his calling. As Mihail grew and manifested an outstanding penchant for knowledge, he left home and spent most of his life far away from his parents. The mysterious dream came to Mihail one late night. It started with an overall state of insecurity and discomfort, followed by a troubling feeling that something disastrous was happening to his father, who was roughly 2000 miles away at the time. Then Mihail could vividly vision the entire catastrophic scene of what his father was experiencing amidst the tempestuous sea: the boat had been tossed onto the steep rocks of a forsaken small island where Mihail’s father as well as the rest of the boat’s crew were struggling with the treacherous sea for survival. And the dream contained all the stark details of the accident. A month or so later (it was the 18th century and there were no particularly efficient means of communication) a man from his native village visited Mihail in Moscow and told him that his father, Vasilii Lomonosov, had passed away in the stormy sea. To the messenger’s amazement, Mihail Lomonosov was not taken aback, but, on the contrary, seemed prepared for it. Moreover, Mihail was able to give certain details of the disaster that could be known only to the participants. The apogee of the story, though, lies in the fact that, after some time had elapsed, a “mini-expedition” of fishermen was lead by Mihail Lomonosov to retrieve the dead body of his father as well as the other hapless victims of the storm and bury them in their native village according to the local traditions. Indeed, Mihail was able to lead the ship to that very island where the fishing boat of his father had crashed. Mihail could identify his father by the large skeleton and wide shoulders (both Mihail and his father, Vasilii Lomonosov, were particularly burly, thick-set men).

Though the above story is really hard to believe, there seem to be pretty many fairly plausible references to it, and not too many people have ever dared to impugn its veracity. Several people seem to have attested to it, including eye witnesses. This mysterious case is still one of the most commonly mentioned examples in parapsychology courses, and is often broached up during discussions on telepathy and similar metaphysical phenomena.

While the previous cases describe mere auguries that did nothing but indicate what would happen or hunches that revealed what was happening, the following cases served as true milestones that changed the course of science. And, while the previous stories are wrapped in dubious mysteries and have lingered mainly because they titillate our imagination and cater to our lust for unusual things, the following examples seem more credible as they can be attributed more or less plausible explanations.

Some dreams have been instrumental in important scientific discoveries. There are a few well-known cases in science history when dreams cast light on various obscure, long-contemplated issues, leading to momentous discoveries.

In 1890, the German chemist F. A. Kekule was awakened by a dream sequence in which a snake bit its tail and formed a circle, thus giving him a pivotal hint that helped clarify the difficulty accounting for the structure of benzene (an organic compound that consists of a cycle of six carbon atoms alternately linked by three single and three double bonds, with one hydrogen atom attached to each carbon atom). Many scientists had long been puzzled by the structure of benzene as it had rather unusual (for that time) and unexplainable properties… And, there you go – it dawned upon Kekule that it could be a well-knit cyclic chain just like the snake in his dream, this making the compound uniform, and thus, pretty stable and “inert” in conditions in which other compounds containing double bonds would have reacted. This marvelous dream amazed Kekule too, as he put it: "Again the atoms were juggling before my eyes… my mind's eye, sharpened by repeated sights of a similar kind. I could now distinguish larger structures of different forms and in long chains, many of them close together; everything was moving in a snake-like and twisting manner. Suddenly… one of the snakes got hold of its own tail and the whole structure was mockingly twisting in front of my eyes. As if struck by lightning, I awoke… Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then we may perhaps find the truth." F.A. Kekule, as reported during a convention, 1890.

Similarly, back in 1921, the Austrian scientist named Otto Loewi, inspired by a dream that recurred in his mind night after night, performed an experiment demonstrating the chemical transmission of nerve impulses to a frog’s heart, thus having a profound effect on the development of neuroscience. His experiment consisted of two connected vessels containing saline so that the solution could flow from one vessel into the other. He put two different frog hearts into each chamber, one of the hearts still being connected to its vagus nerve. Electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve (which was attached to the first heart) caused the respective heart to slow down (this being the normal effect of the vagus nerve stimulation). The surprising part of this experiment became manifest after a short while, when the second heart started slowing down too, although it was not connected to its own vagus nerve and received no direct stimulation of any kind. Thus, Loewi hypothesized that electrical stimulation of the vagus nerve released a chemical into the fluid of the first chamber that flowed into the second chamber too, thus, for the first time demonstrating the chemical nature of the nervous impulse. And the idea for this experiment came to the scientist in his sleep, as described by him:

"In the night of Easter Saturday, 1921, I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of 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 most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. That Sunday was the most desperate day in my whole scientific life. During the next night, however, I awoke again, at three o'clock, and I remembered what it was. This time I did not take any risk; I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, made the experiment on the frog's heart, and at five o' clock the chemical transmission of nervous impulse was conclusively proved." - quoted from Loewi, O., From the Workshop of Discoveries, Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1953.

Finally, in 1869, Dmitry Mendeleev, the 35-year-old professor of Chemistry at the University of St. Petersburg was striving to find certain criteria that could permit the classification of elements in several distinct groups and an underlying rule that would help him arrange the 63 known elements in a certain order. He’d already spent long years of painstaking research and grueling work, trying one thing after another, this, however, yielding but little progress. Nevertheless, one late night, he fell asleep after another one long day of hard work, and guess what? He saw in a dream that which later gave birth to the well-known Periodic Table, the conceptual foundation of modern chemical science, which even allowed for the prediction of hitherto unknown elements.

It looks like no one has managed to come up with any direct, incontrovertible evidence to corroborate the fact that a dream brought those indispensable clarifications that gave birth to the Periodic Table. The entire fact has been related by Inostrantsev, one of Mendeleev’s colleagues. According to Inostrantsev, Mendeleev kept pondering assiduously over the classification of elements. Once, when Inostrantsev called on Mendeleev, the latter was in a state of profound gloom because, according to him, he was very close to the solution and almost had it in his mind, but still couldn’t get a lucid image of it. Three days later Mendeleev was still working in his office without having had a rest for three nights, striving to compile what is now considered the greatest discovery of all time in chemistry. But, to his consternation, nothing seemed to work. So, in the end he was very exhausted and fell asleep. And that’s when the wonderful idea dawned on him – a marvelous dream that keeps being discussed by many until today.

Unfortunately, even today many misinformed or deliberately deluded people believe that the entire table revealed to Mendeleev in every detail, coming out of thin air, as if it were nothing more than a beam of luck. And this is definitely a ridiculous thing to believe. As a matter of fact, most people have no idea how many years Mendeleev had “invested” into research before that fortuitous dream and how many more he spent in order to perfect his Periodic Table afterwards. Inostrantsev mentions that Mendeleev hadn’t slept for three consecutive nights before that very dream, and no one knows how many more nights totally devoid of sleep had the famous scientist had since he began his research. Moreover, Inostrantsev says that Mendeleev used to be truly dejected because of the long-term work he’d been doing without seeing any considerable progress. And, this is actually what brought him success – sheer hard work, insistence, and patience. As for the dream, it was a serendipitous idea to insert the chemical elements in a matrix that was based on a two-dimensional arrangement instead of simple groups that classified the elements only according to one criterion. Thus, both columns and rows would respect certain periodicities of properties, meanwhile keeping the order of increasing atomic weight. The fact that all the credit goes to the hard work of the scientist is also eloquently proven by the fact that the initial table contained many gaps deliberately left for the yet unknown elements that had to correspond to the predicted properties.

The other two scientists were in the same situations. In no case should anyone believe that they built fame on mere luck. The dreams they had were actually the last bittersweet drops of knowledge to fill their chalices of success! Ok; then why dreams you may wonder… Well, here’s the answer:

According to modern theories about sleep, the latter, among other functions, is a way to subconsciously process the knowledge acquired since the last sleep and a way of analyzing the events experienced during the same time, transforming them into a system of patterns on which our subsequent behavior and our intuition is based. This is indisputably demonstrated by the fact that people who get enough sleep memorize the learned things much better than those who keep cramming late at night and get very little sleep or none at all (as is the case of dilatory students who go berserk before their exams), these not being able to retain the huge load of freshly acquired knowledge for more than a couple of days or even only a few hours.

As for dreams, they represent vivid “short stories” composed on the basis of a “slide show” of bizarre and random fragments by which the most profound thoughts, impressions, and feelings are expressed. Dreams are usually triggered by certain strong recent impressions and stir an extensive area of our memory that has at least something in common with the matter in hand, even if the link is truly odd or no link at all occurs to us. So, there is no reason to wonder why Mendeleev’s dream brought up a table – tables and graphs are ubiquitous in scientific research and analysis. Similarly, the image of a snake biting its own tail is probably the most well-known picture in chemistry, being found in scores or even hundreds of scientific records, starting with the incredible notes of the ancient alchemists who used to depict every single substance and phenomenon with real-life drawings that seemed to have some reasonable connection, and finishing with the modern scientists who’ve preserved those vestiges of scientific inspiration in order to make their teachings a little more spicy. So, there’s no much wonder why this very picture sprang up in Kekule’s mind while being so focused upon his research. And, while it might have been sheer serendipity that this very image appeared and not another one, still, it was no more than a fortuitous source of inspiration that bolstered a tremendous load of hard work that already deserved all the credit received afterwards!

By Denis Dilion

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