Dreams and the Origin of Artistic Inspiration

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There are thousands of websites and self-help books dedicated to helping artists (and wanna-be artists) find the inspiration required to become the next great writer, painter, musician …

The Ancient Greeks believed that goddesses (called muses) were the inspiration for most art and went as far as to offer supplication in return for being in their favour. In a recent Ted talk, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the best-selling travel memoir Eat, Pray, Love, reintroduced this idea when she suggested that some kind of force outside of the the artist is at least partially responsible for the act of creation. As an example, according to Gilbert, Tom Waits was driving on a freeway when a great melody came into his head. He was unable to write it down but was afraid to loose it so he appealed to the muses: “Excuse me. Can you not see I’m driving? Do I look like I can write down a song right now? If you really want to exist, come back at a more opportune moment …  otherwise go bother somebody else today. Go bother Leonard Cohen.” According to Gilbert, at this moment Waits entered into a new relationship with his creativity that was “peculiar, wondrous, bizarre collaboration and conversation between Tom and the strange external genius that was not Tom.” (source)

For those of us who don’t necessarily believe

in fairies, muses or an external divinity, a more practical alternative to mystical intervention is that our subconscious minds have the potential to act on our conscious desires and motivations. The New York Times article Who’s Minding the Mind highlights numerous studies that show that “once covertly activated, an unconscious goal persists with the same determination that is evident in our conscious pursuits.” (source)

There are many examples of artists who say that complete or nearly complete masterpieces came to them while they were asleep, including:

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge claims that Kubla Khan came to him in its entirety in an opium induced dream. According to the writer’s own account, when he woke up he began fervently composing line after line of poetry until he was interrupted by a visitor. After returning to the work he struggled to complete the rest of the poem because he could not remember the rest of the lines. Critics on the whole say that Kubla Khan is unlike most of Coleridge’s other work. (source)
  • According to his own account, Robert Louis Stevenson’s inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to him in a dream: “For two days I went about racking my brains for a plot of any sort; and on the second night I dreamed the scene at the window, and a scene afterward split in two, in which Hyde, pursued for some crime, took the powder and underwent the change in the presence of his pursuers.” (source)
  • The melody for Yesterday, the most covered Beatles song in their entire catalog, came in its entirety to Paul McCartney in a dream. It came to him so completely that for months he was convinced that he’d plagiarized it and would play it for friends and record executives to try to determine its origins before finally accepting it as his own. (source)
  • In her introduction to the 1931 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley “revealed that she got the story from a dream, in which she saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with a uneasy, half vital motion.” (source)

Image Credit: An Angel in the Deluge by Ici et Ailleurs

Change Blindness, Saccadic Masking: Eye Hacks – Oh My!


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In the above video, 75% of the people tested failed to notice that the person they were talking to was swapped with a different person during their conversation. In a similar experiment conducted by Derren Brown, about 50% of people failed to notice that a person asking them for directions was

swapped-out during their interaction. This phenomenon is referred to as Change Blindess or Inattentional Blindness – our inability to detect large changes in a scene.

We also experience some form of ‘blindness’ on a very small scale. Our brain performs something called Saccadic Masking during certain types of fast eye movements (saccades), where our vision is massively impaired during the movement, but our brain uses before and after snapshots to hide the fact that we were unable to clearly see during the movement – in effect, it is hiding the useless blurred image of movement from us.

You can see this in action with a simple experiment. Grab a friend and a mirror. Look into the mirror, and stare at one eye, then switch to the other, then back again. You won’t be able to see your eye movement (your brain is masking it), but your friend will.

For more information, check out Hack #17, Glimpse the Gaps in Your Vision (pdf) from O’Reilly’s excellent Mind Hacks book.

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Numbers Stations – The Soundtrack to Your Nightmares

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Listen to a minute of this, from about 0:50 onwards: The Swedish Rhapsody (MP3).

This spooky sound is sampled from a Numbers Station. Hundreds of these shortwave radio stations exist around the world, transmitting numbers, letters, beeps and simple tunes. Their origin – and ongoing transmissions – still largely remain a mystery.

Are they secret codes and directives for spies in foreign countries? Are they sources of misinformation to distract the enemy? Perhaps messages between druglords? Hoaxes by amateur enthusiasts? The answer is probably: yes, all of these, and more besides.

The Conet Project sampled 150 transmissions from 20 years and released them on a 4CD set (“Not available in stores!“, I suspect). This is currently “out of stock”, but the recordings are also available on archive.org, should you wish to disturb yourself some


You can read more about Numbers Stations on Damn Interesting, and Boing Boing’s coverage of the copyright fight between The Conet Project and Wilco, who used a sample of the recordings on their Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album. Wikipedia also has entries for some individual stations, including The Lincolnshire Poacher, Cherry Ripe, and UVB-76.

Lego spy photo under Creative Commons license from Flickr user Dunechaser.