11 Creative Breakthroughs People Had in Their Sleep
Some people dream about falling off buildings (and doing the full body spasm thing when they hit the ground). These 11 people, on the other hand, had dreams that changed the world.
1. James Cameron // The Terminator
Does an emotionless cyborg killing machine that looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger seem like a nightmare to you? It was a nightmare for James Cameron. He was fighting a 102°F fever when a vision of a robot dragging itself along the floor with a knife came to him in his sleep. Apparently, Cameron brainstorms best in a dream state: it’s how he thought up Avatar as well.
2. Paul McCartney // "Yesterday"
Paul McCartney was just 22 when he “woke up with a lovely tune in my head” and thought, “That’s great, I wonder what that is?’” He got up and easily picked the tune out on the piano, but was convinced that it must have been something he heard years ago and subconsciously remembered. After further investigation revealed that it was a McCartney original, he jotted down some lyrics: “Scrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” The real words to "Yesterday" came later.
3. Mary Shelley // Frankenstein’s Monster
Mary Shelley was spending the year without a summer in Switzerland with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and some other literary notables when they decided to have a writing contest. Mary was stuck—until she went to bed for the night, and had what she called a “waking dream” of a “hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” Thrilled that her writer’s block was gone, Shelley decided that “what terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the specter which had haunted my midnight pillow.”
4. Robert Louis Stevenson // Jekyll and Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson also had a form of writer’s block. He knew he wanted to write about the dual life of a man, but had no idea how to go about it and was frustrated that no plot was presenting itself to him. Then he closed his eyes. “On the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterwards split in two, in which Hyde for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers,” he wrote later.
5. Stephenie Meyer // Twilight
Whether you’re a fan of angsty blood-suckers and pouty werewolves or not, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer came up with a humdinger of a story in a dream. “It was two people in kind of a little circular meadow with really bright sunlight, and one of them was a beautiful, sparkly boy, and one was just a girl who was human and normal, and they were having this conversation," she told Oprah Winfrey in 2009. "The boy was a vampire, which is so bizarre that I'd be dreaming about vampires, and he was trying to explain to her how much he cared about her and yet at the same time how much he wanted to kill her.”
Yep, that’s Twilight. Meyer wrote her dream down, she said, because it was so different from her everyday, stay-at-home-mom life that she wanted to hold on to it. “I just wanted to remember it so badly. That’s why I started writing it down—not because I thought this would be a great story for a novel.”
6. H.P. Lovecraft // The Necronomicon
H.P. Lovecraft saw his famous book of the dead in his dreams, including the odd title. What that quality REM time didn’t reveal was the book’s meaning: Lovecraft had no idea what the odd word meant but scribbled it down anyway. His rough attempt to translate it from Greek resulted in the fitting “An Image of the Law of the Dead.” He may have been indirectly (or directly) inspired by a 1st-century poem called the Astronomicon.
7. Dmitri Mendeleev // the Periodic Table
It’s said that Dmitri Mendeleev was on a three-day work bender when he finally gave in for a few minutes of shut-eye. Instead of falling asleep for 17 hours like most sleep-deprived people, Mendeleev dreamed of an arrangement of elements that would change modern chemistry forever, then popped up about 20 minutes later to record it. “I saw in a dream a table where all the elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper ... Only in one place did a correction later seem necessary.”
8. Jack Nicklaus // His Golf Swing
The subconscious isn’t just a creativity factory—it’s a sports clinic, too. Nicklaus figured out why his game was off after he dreamed that he was owning the links in a way he hadn’t for a while. After analyzing the dream, the six-time Masters champ realized he was gripping the club differently in the dream than he did in real life. “I tried it the way I did in my dream and it worked. I feel kind of foolish admitting it, but it really happened in a dream.”
9. Elias Howe // Sewing Machine Needle
Elias Howe, inventor of the modern sewing machine, had been trying to get the needle to work in his new invention. Having the eye at the base (as in handheld needles) was out of the question. Then, Popular Mechanics reported in 1905, he fell asleep:
“One night he dreamed that he was building a sewing machine in a strange country for a savage king. The king had given him 24 hours to complete the machine and make it sew, but try as he would he could not make the needle work, and finally gave up in despair. At sunrise he was taken out to be executed, and with the mechanical action of the mind in times of great crises he noted that the spears carried by the warriors were pierced near the head. Suddenly, he realized that here was the solution of the sewing machine needle. He begged for time—and while still begging, awoke. It was four o’clock. Hastily he dressed and went to his workshop—at nine o’clock the model of the needle with an eye at the point was finished.”
10. James Watson // the Double Helix
The shape and structure of DNA eluded scientists until 1953, when Dr. James Watson had a dream that made him consider the double helix. According to Watson’s 2005 TED Talk, the dream was of two intertwined serpents with heads at opposite ends, though other accounts say the dream was of a double-sided staircase.
11. Stephen King // Misery
If bestselling authors are any indication, we should all be turning our worst nightmares into blockbuster novels. For instance, Kathy Bates breaking your ankle with a sledgehammer. Misery, Stephen King has said, was originally a dream he had on an airplane. “[I] dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig, and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer's skin. I said to myself, 'I have to write this story.' Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling."
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.