The oldest surviving English poem is attributed to an illiterate seventh-century peasant named Caedmon, who was ashamed because he did not know how to sing. Caedmon was a lay brother and herdsman at an abbey on the Yorkshire coast. One evening he attended a feast with the monks but left early because he could not take his turn in the singing. He went down to sleep in the stables and had a dream in which a figure greeted him and said, “Caedmon, sing me a song.” Caedmon protested that he did not know how to sing, but the figure told him he must. “Sing to me of the first Creation,” he was commanded. So Caedmon opened his mouth and sang the praises of God the Creator. He remembered the words when he awoke and told others. He was brought before the abbess, who assembled her learned monks to hear his song. As a test, they gave him another religious theme to turn into verse, and he returned the next morning with new words that had come to him in the night. The abbess recognized that this illiterate herdsman had received a divine gift. She persuaded him to take monastic vows and ordered her scholars to give him religious instruction. For the rest of his life, Caedmon continued to compose poetry based on what he had been taught.
These days we like to think inspiration comes to those who are wide awake, and we view with suspicion anyone who admits to sleeping on the job. Samuel Coleridge famously awoke from a dream with the lines of his poem “Kubla Kahn” already in mind, but he frankly acknowledged that he had also taken opium to combat a case of dysentery. Similarly, the nightmare that inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to write “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” may have been the result of medication he was taking that was known to produce hallucinations in some patients.
Yet how do we account for sober scientific breakthroughs that seemingly result from snoozing rather than experimentation? The chemist Friedrich August Kekule credited dreams for his discovery of the tetravalent structure of carbon atoms and the hexagonal structure of benzene. A dream enabled Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleev to complete work on the periodic table that has tormented high school chemistry students ever since. Otto Loewi won a Nobel Prize in medicine for a dream-inspired experiment proving that nerve impulses were transmitted chemically rather than electrically. A Nobel Prize was also awarded to physicist Niels Bohr for his planetary model of atomic structure, which came to him in a dream. And these were merely the scientists who were willing to admit their ideas sometimes arrived by the back door.
Sigmund Freud famously said dreams were the royal road to the unconscious. He was not the first to identify the unconscious by name, as some might suppose. Coleridge coined the term, but the concept goes back to the ancient Greeks. For Freud, the unconscious was a seething cauldron of instinctive drives and desires that sidestepped the ego’s repression through dreams, jokes and slips of the tongue. William Dement applied more scientific techniques to the study of dreams, establishing a connection between dreaming and rapid eye movement during sleep. Dement limited himself to the physiological aspects of dreams rather than their content, which he regarded warily. “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives," he said and pretty much left it at that.
Since dreaming is mostly done in the dark, we assume our dreams are formed by darkness. But if the truth be known, we have no idea where any of our thoughts come from, waking or sleeping. They just pop into our heads, and we assume we thought them up ourselves. But we never actually see the wheels turning. For all we know, those of us whose insanity is not quiet and safe may be correct in believing our thoughts were piped in by aliens or the CIA. Under the circumstances, perhaps it is not so crazy to think the voices that speak to us in the night might even come from God. Long ago, the patriarch Jacob dreamed of a ladder that reached to heaven, and when he awoke he consecrated the ground on which he had slept. “Surely the LORD is in this place,” he cried, “and I did not know it.”