We know sleep helps us solve problems and live longer. Sometimes it even heralds a stroke of genius.
You know what visions I get in my dreams? Visions of falling off of buildings (and doing the full body spasm thing when I hit the ground). Some people, though, have the sort of dreams that change the world. Or at least result in Arnold Schwarzenegger films.
The Periodic Table
It's said that Dmitry Mendeleyev 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, Mendeleyev dreamt 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."
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 came later, obviously.
Mary Shelley was hanging out with her husband (Percy Bysshe, of course), 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 spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow."
Jekyll and Hyde
Robert Louis Stevenson had a similar problem: The stories just weren't coming. 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."
Whether or not you're a fan of angsty blood-suckers and pouty werewolves, you have to admit that Stephenie Meyer is definitely doing okay for herself. And she has one particularly vivid dream to thank. "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 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."
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 first-century poem called the Astronomicon.
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-degree 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 of Avatar as well.
Jack Nicklaus' 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."
The Sewing Machine Needle
Elias Howe, inventor of the modern sewing machine, had been troubled by how 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."
If bestselling authors are any indication, we should all be taking our worst nightmares and turning them 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. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel."
A version of this post originally appeared on Mental Floss, an Atlantic partner site.