The architecture of dreams

In Excerpts, Thoughts on March 11, 2011 at 2:35 pm

One way to tell the story is like this: The structure of the chemical compound Benzene was discovered by German organic chemist August Kekulé in 1865. The discovery led to Kekulé’s theory of chemical structure, which was single-handedly responsible for the explosive expansion of work in the field of organic chemistry.

Another way is like this: Sometime in the mid-1800s, August Kekulé, an organic chemist from Germany, had a dream. His—and the world’s—understanding of organic compounds had long been stifled by the fact that no one had a clear picture of how these compounds were structured. But a chance daydream of Ouroboros, the mythological symbol of a snake eating its own tail, led Kekulé to wonder about a new, unconsidered arrangement of carbon bonds. It was a revelation that impacted the entire field of science. And it came from a dream.

Steven Johnson references this story in Where Good Ideas Come From, as well as others in which ideas come from dreams. He has an explanation—one I’d love to quote, but I don’t have the book in front of me—and in essence, it’s that our brains are in constant motion when we sleep, and it is precisely the chaos of our sleeping minds that can bring together two disparate pieces of information. Half-formed thoughts, images we’d once seen, feelings from childhood—all these are woven into the seemingly senseless, often disconcerting, narratives of our dreams, and though normally useless, there have been moments throughout history where a person’s mind will put things together in a way that he or she never would’ve considered. And it becomes something as important as the theory of chemical structure.

In a way, it reminds me of my favorite scene in The Life Aquatic.


There’s something fantastic but also very believable when he says he thought up the observation bubble in a dream.

So sandwiched in between these two ideas is a question: what else can we dream? If we can dream the structure of chemical compounds and underwater observation decks, can we dream buildings? Can we dream museums and cities and ways to organize our economy?

Of course. We can dream anything. But the lesson here is that we need the right things rolling around in our heads. Or rather we should not discount the seeming disparity of the millions of things we already have. We may not be able to put them together. But maybe our minds can.

The final photo is a map of a ship’s various reflective properties by producer Mark Vogelsang.


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