March 09, 2007

Sleep to Dream and Dream to Discover

lady sleepingImagine this. You are trying to solve a problem for the last few days. You are too tired to concentrate any more. You go to bed and sleep like a log, just as The Beatles sang. All of a sudden you find the "key" that leads to the solution you wanted, in a dream.

Things like that do happen in real life. Many a inventions in the past were directly or indirectly inspired by dreams. Elias Howe was toiling his brains out trying to figure out how he would make a needle stitch clothes, so that it could be operated by a machine. He was dog tired and went to bed. He had a good night's sleep that day only to be taken prisoner, in his dream, by fierce tribals wielding bizarre lances with holes at the tips. He immediately understood the dream's implication and the sewing machine was born.

Otto Loewi's discoveries about chemical neurotransmitter won him the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The discovery appeared in a dream. He immediately jotted it down. But he couldn't decipher his own handwriting the next day. Loewi, disappointed, spent his 'longest day' in his life and went to sleep again. He got another dream. This time he went straight to his laboratory and performed the test according to the dream on a frog. This dream led to the discovery of neurotransmitters, chemicals through which neurons communicate. Acetylcholine was discovered and Loewi became known as the father of Neuroscience.

Kekule, the German chemist, was doubly fortunate for he was rewarded twice in dreams. Firstly, he got the structural formula and valencies of carbon atoms in a dream and secondly he propounded the ring structure of benzene ring, after having dreamed of a snake fidgeting with it's tail and putting it into it's mouth. His dream, while he was traveling in a London bus is well recorded. Serendipity in dreams doesn't end here, for there are many more examples. That is why Kekule once said, 'lets learn to dream'.

The whys and hows of dreams are not clearly understood but it is known that the brain does some housekeeping tasks (consolidation of semantic memories) while we are asleep. Also, it is the dreams in REM sleep that are vivid and remembered upon waking. It (REM or rapid eye movement) is a paradoxical sleep phase since, although the person is sleeping there is increased heart rate, brain activity and breathing. So, we need to sleep tight if we are to stay ahead in the race, and right now I feel I should do justice to myself by giving my fatigued brain it's due. Zzzzzzz....

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