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Loewi's Nobel Dream

Dreamed Easter 1920 by Otto Loewi

In 1903, most researchers believed that nerve impulses were transmitted electrically, like telegraph signals. Otto Loewi (1873-1961), a German-born physiologist, had the idea that they might be transmitted chemically. He was at a loss how to prove it, though, and let the idea slip to the back of his mind.

But in 1920, he had the following dream. According to Loewi:

"The night before Easter Sunday of that year I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at 6 o'clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl.

The next night, at 3 o'clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether or not the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered 17 years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a single experiment on a frog's heart according to the nocturnal design."

Dr. Otto Loewi It took Loewi a decade to carry out a decisive series of tests to satisfy all his critics, but ultimately his initial dream-induced experiment led to proof that nerve impulses are indeed chemically transmitted.

For this work, Loewi was awarded a Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936.


The War of the Soups and the Sparks: The Discovery of Neurotransmitters and the Dispute Over How Nerves Communicate, Elliot S Valenstein

"An Autobiographical Sketch" by Otto Loewi, in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, Autumn 1960


This dream-account is brief, but I've included it (and other dream-inspired scientific and technical innovations) to counter a myth I've run across among dream-skeptics. It goes like this:

Dream-thinking just isn't scientific. The only example you ever hear of is Kekulé and the benzene ring, and he didn't really dream that; it was just a daydream on the bus.
Now Kekulé's account of his "dreams" is admittedly florid and imprecise; it's not clear if he slept or was just in a deep reverie (though he later called these "dreams" and surely he ought to know best). But in many other cases, there is no such uncertainty. Agassiz's dream correctly predicting the structure of a fossil fish, Loewi's dream, Howe's dream leading to the modern sewing machine, Einstein's dream of sledding near the speed of light, Ramanujan's mathematical dreams, Parkinson's dream of the M9 fire-controller that turned the tide against the Luftwaffe--all these and more show dreams to be just as useful in science and technology as they unquestionably are in the arts and humanities. But these stories aren't well known at all.

Culturally, hard scientists don't talk much about the sources of one's ideas, particularly if those sources have any taint of mysticism. The scientific method theoretically has no problems with hypotheses coming from dreams (or dice, or the Tooth Fairy)--what makes it science is testing, and scientists quite naturally focus on whether hypotheses pan out. Theoretically, at least. But blabbing about dreams won't win you any grants!

In contrast, in the arts there's a distinct cachet to claims like "That song/story/image came to me in a dream; I'm just channeling some mysterious spirit." If anything, it may boost sales and funding.

So this notion that dreams are soft, squishy, inappropriate for science and serious research may be driven by differences in reporting, driven in turn by economics! But don't confuse talk with behavior. I've seen no evidence that intuition and dreams play less of a role in science.

But don't worry. If your department head asks, we haven't had this little chat. You were never here.

--Chris Wayan

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