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Sleep Communications

Any one who has been thinking much for several days about a problem is
likely to wake up with the thought that he has dreamed a solution of
it, though unfortunately the solution has not remained in his memory.
It seems as if a communication has been made to him during sleep. I
have discussed dream life with many men engaged in serious work, and
practically all of them confess to such experiences. Preoccupation of
mind with a subject during the waking hours leads to at least some
occupation of mind with the same subject during sleep. This
unconscious occupation must often require rather strenuous attention,
exhausting nutrition, using up nerve force and hampering the rest that
is so important for tired human nature. [Footnote 17]

[Footnote 17: A number of poetic products of dreams are in our
literature, some of them interesting for more than their curious
origin. Dr. S. Weir Mitchell, in his latest volume of poems, "The
Comfort of the Hills," made an interesting contribution to the
psychology of dreams by publishing two poems which were composed by
him while asleep. The little poem, "Which?" has all the curious
alliterativeness and frequent rhyme that is so likely to be noted in
expressions that come during sleep, or just as we awake. The other
is more like a somnambulistic effort. What we might suggest here is
that the habit of poetizing during sleep would surely be dangerous
to any one less eminently sane than their author. We give them as
curious examples that will interest patients who complain that their
dreams are too vivid.


Come, let us be the willing fools
Of April's earliest day.
And dream we own all pleasant things
The years have reft away.

'Tis but to take the poet's wand,
A touch or here or there,
And I have lost that ancient stoop,
And you are young and fair.

Ah, no! The years that gave and took
Have left with you and me
The wisdom of the widening stream;
Trust we the larger sea.


Birth-day or Earth-day,
Which the true mirth-day?
Earth-day or birth-day,
Which the well-worth day?

For further details on this subject, see the chapter on Dreams.]

Art in Dreams.--Many a painter testifies that as he slept interesting
details have been added to his scheme for a picture. Mr. Huntington,
who was for so long president of the National Academy, once told me
that some of the arrangements of his famous picture, "Mercy's Dream"
in the Corcoran Art Gallery at Washington, had come to him during
sleep. Giovanni Dupre, the French sculptor, confessed that the ideas
for his beautiful pieta had practically all come to him in a dream.
He had been thinking for a long time how he should arrange it, without
allowing any of the ideas of sculptors whose treatment of the subject
was well known to influence him too much, and had almost felt that it
would be impossible to make anything individual. While deeply occupied
with it one day he fell asleep, and when he awoke the whole scheme was

Mathematical Dreams.--Such phenomena of unconscious cerebration are
not uncommon in the exact sciences. Some of the best examples of these
curious phenomena that we have are to be found in the history of
them. We all know the stories of mathematicians who, occupied deeply
with a problem which they have been unable to solve, have gone to bed
still thinking about it, have slept deeply and, as they thought,
dreamlessly, and yet they have waked in the morning to find by the
bedside the problem all worked out in their own penciling--all
accomplished during a somnambulistic state. Missing factors have been
found in dreams; mistakes in the working out of problems have been
clearly pointed out in dreams, so that, on awaking, the calculator
could at once correct his calculations, and even serious errors have
been thus corrected.

Agassiz's Experience.--Some examples of these experiences in other
sciences are striking. One that is likely to be impressive because it
occurred in the experience of Professor Louis Agassiz, seems worth
reporting. [Footnote 18]

[Footnote 18: "Louis Agassiz, His Life and Correspondence,"
edited by Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1885.]

It is interesting both as psychological fact and as showing how,
sleeping and waking, his work was ever present with him. He had been
for two weeks striving to decipher the somewhat obscure impression
of a fossil fish on the stone slab in which it was preserved. Weary
and perplexed he put his work aside at last, and tried to dismiss it
from his mind. Shortly after, he waked one night persuaded that
while asleep he had seen his fish with all the missing features
perfectly restored. But when he tried to hold and make fast the
image it escaped him. Nevertheless he went early to the Jardin des
Plantes, thinking that on looking anew at the impression he should
see something that would put him on the track of his vision. In
vain--the blurred record was as blank as ever. The next night he saw
the fish again, but with no more satisfactory result. When he woke
it disappeared from his memory as before. Hoping that the same
experience might be repeated, on the third night he placed a pencil
and paper beside his bed before going to sleep. Accordingly toward
morning the fish reappeared in his dream, confusedly at first, but
at last with such distinctness that he had no longer any doubt as to
its zoological characters. Still half dreaming, in perfect darkness,
he traced these characters on the sheet of paper at the bedside. In
the morning he was surprised to see in his nocturnal sketch features
which he thought it impossible the fossil itself should reveal. He
hastened to the Jardin des Plantes, and, with his drawing as a
guide, succeeded in chiseling away the surface of the stone under
which the portions of the fish proved to be hidden. When wholly
exposed, it corresponded with his drawing, and his dream, and he
succeeded in classifying it with ease. He often spoke of this as a
good illustration of the well-known fact that when the body is at
rest the tired brain will do the work it refused before.

Hilprecht's Sleep Vision.--Quite as surprising a dream was that of
Prof. Hilprecht, of the University of Pennsylvania. He had been trying
for some time to decipher certain characters on ancient cylinders from
the Orient. In spite of much hard mental labor he had been utterly
unable to reach definite conclusions. In the midst of work on the
subject he dreamt one night that a priest of the olden time appeared
to him and read off the inscription that he had in vain been trying to
decipher. Immediately after waking he told his wife of his dream and
wrote down the interpretation that had thus been given. It was quite
different from anything that he himself had obtained any hint of in
his previous studies. When he got back to the inscription he found
that this interpretation would satisfy the conditions better than any
other, and there seemed no doubt that it represented the missing

Somnambulism.--These curiously vivid dreams are occasionally
associated with somnambulistic phenomena. Sometimes very definite
purposes, requiring careful adaptation of means to ends, are
accomplished in the somnambulistic state, and yet the actions are
completely forgotten. I have recently been consulted about a case in
which a young woman, on a visit to a family, had been shown some
pretty though not expensive jewels. Evidently the guest envied their
possession, for she got up during sleep and took the jewels and hid
them. There seems no reason to doubt her statement that she remembered
nothing at all about the incident. The taking was not attributed to
her. There had been previous experiences of the same kind with things
belonging to this young woman's sister. Somnambulism represents a
degree of unconscious cerebration that may have serious results.
Combinations of intellectual work with somnambulism are not
infrequent, though many of the stories that are told are exaggerated.
Some of them are authenticated. Ribot has a typical example of
intellectual accomplishment, in a somnambulistic condition, that shows
how far this may go:

A clear case of somnambulism was that of a clergyman, whom his wife
saw rise from bed in his sleep, go to a writing table, and write
rapidly for some minutes. This done he returned to bed, and slept on
until morning. On awaking, he told her that in a dream he had worked
out an argument for a sermon, of which he now retained no
recollection whatever. She led him to the writing table, and showed
him the written sheet upon which he found his argument worked out in
the most satisfactory manner.

Next: Pathological Significance

Previous: Unconscious Cerebration

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