And yet, as angels in some brighter dreams / call to the soul when man doth sleep, / so some strange thoughts transcend our wonted themes, / and into glory peep.
~Henry Vaughn, “They are all Gone into the World of Light” (Poetry Foundation)
One of the wonders of science is the Periodic Table of Elements, the fascinating chart that explains the properties of the building blocks of our physical world. Most of us likely studied the chart in high school – or at least saw a poster of it hanging on the science teacher’s wall!
I call it a “wonder” because, when you hear about how it came into being, you will probably agree that its very existence is truly wonder-ful.
Out of nowhere
We often describe a thing that happens suddenly as just “popping into existence” or “coming out of nowhere”. That is not quite true of anything in the world except in the case of Creation itself, which God brought into existence ex nihilo (out of nothing) at a word of command (Genesis 1 and 2.) But if anything qualifies as a phenomenon of the natural world that actually did pop into existence suddenly – very literally, overnight – it would be this amazing chart.
The Periodic Table of the Elements was born in a dream, out of the soul of a great scientist.
Here is how Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, in their book, Primed to Perform (Harper, 2015), describe the dream and its impact:
[Medieval] Alchemists believed that all matter was composed of earth, air, fire, and water. For centuries they mixed and remixed materials in an attempt to produce the mythical philosopher’s stone, which they believed had the power to transform base metals, like iron, into gold, and to confer immortality. Instead, they discovered chemistry.
Chemistry took its biggest leap forward in 1869 when Russian chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev produced the Period Table of Elements. “I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required,” he said later. “Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper.” Thanks to this organizing framework, Mendeleev was able to predict the properties of elements that had not yet been discovered. What had once been magic was now firmly in the realm of science. (5)
The truly marvelous aspect of the story is that a man who spent his waking hours thinking about the natural world and its elements received a “gift” in sleep, a sort of instant snapshot of the world that explained material reality in a new way.
Did he, as the poet Henry Vaughn suggested above, receive this wisdom from a bright angel who had been given charge by God over the elements of the world? Skeptics and the modern army of atheistic scientists will scoff at such an idea, but don’t discount the angelic answer too quickly.
Think of how many times in the Bible some crucial information was communicated by an angel to someone in a dream or mystical state (Jacob, Daniel, the Old and New Testament Josephs, John of Revelation, to name a few). In each case, the information or instructions in the dream produced some grand effect on the world.
Is that kind of thing still possible? Yes! Even in the midst of a faithless age.
A natural explanation
Mendeleev’s dream probably has a perfectly natural explanation, however, which is why it is a wonder of this world. Some power within him – within Mendeleev’s great scientific mind – gathered all his scattered scientific information together one night while he was sleeping, connected the dots of all the disparate materials, and produced a coherent explanation for a complex reality. We would say that everything just “came together” at once, in his mind, in a dream.
We normally call this mysterious organizing power of the mind intuition.
Intuition is a function of the subconscious mind. It is not a rational power. It is irrational but not in the chaotic sense we usually associate with that word.
In fact, a healthy intuitive mind produces the opposite effect of chaos: it unites things previously divided, fills in gaps, and explains things formerly unknown. Here is how the famous spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, explains the non-rational dimension of the human mind:
The subconscious mind plays a very important part in the interior life, even though it remains behind the scenes. Just as a good play depends on the scene, the lighting, and all the rest, so to our interior life owes much of its character to the setting and lighting in the background and atmosphere which are provided, without any deliberate action on our own, by our subconscious mind…. For the subconscious mind is a storehouse of images and symbols…which provides us with more than half the material of what we actually experience as “life.“ Without our knowing it, we see reality through glasses colored by the subconscious memory of previous experiences.
The critical factor: rest
Intuition, as a function of the subconscious, is also the product of a rested mind and body. Have you ever noticed that people have their best and most creative ideas when they come back from vacation? There’s a good reason for that: the intuition has been unleashed by physical, emotional and psychological rest. (Unless, you take your kids to Disney World for vacation, as comedian Jim Gaffigan has noted. Then all bets are off.)
And did you ever wake up from a nap or a good night’s sleep and find that you were suddenly clear about something you had been thinking about for a while? Perhaps during exercise, leisure, or prayer a thought just “occurred” to you that put into perspective many scraps of previously disorganized information floating around in your working, rational mind. That is the power of intuition at work.
On the other hand, dreams and intuitions don’t come to someone who is overly busy or whose thoughts are scattered to the four winds, constantly checking email or multi-tasking. Tension, stress, anxiety, distraction, and dissipation kill intuition in the same way that a violent squall on the surface of the sea keeps the fish from rising to the warmer waters.
The unconscious mind operates on a similar principle. It is an immense reservoir of sense impressions and ideas, which only come to light and organize themselves when body and soul are tranquil.
A crucial distinction
Here we come to the crucial distinction between a true angelic intervention and the natural functioning of intuition. It’s important to recognize this distinction so we don’t over-spiritualize things that have natural causes, or on the other hand, discount the intervention of heaven when it occurs.
Angels give information that no human being could previously have known or discovered by the rational mind. Human intuition is the product of information already stored in our minds.
Regarding the former, simply read a few of the angelic dream appearances in the Bible (Genesis 32:22; Matthew 1:18; Revelation 1:1) and it will become apparent that angels never reveal to people something that can be known to them in a natural way or by a process of deduction. They communicate God’s hidden plans to people.
Regarding intuition, the subconscious mind works best when it has something to work with. Thomas Merton’s perceptive analysis indicates that the materials the intuition organizes are sense data, disparate bits of knowledge, images, symbols, experiences, even random emotions. They are already in the human mind and soul. They are the raw materials out of which the intuitive mind creates insights (and fantastic charts like the Periodic Table).
The need to engage
This highlights another element of intuition that is just as important as rest. Our conscious engagement with those raw materials has an impact on the power of intuition.
In short, the more intense our engagement in some subject matter before our rational mind, the greater the organizing ability of our intuition. We should not be surprised that the conscious and subconscious mind work together gathering up all the threads of our emotional and intellectual life and weaving them into a single tapestry of perception. At least that is how minds and souls are supposed to work.
It’s a lesson for our own personal development. We must learn to dwell deeply on the things we commit to. Focus, concentration, attention are those habits of mind that unify our minds in all their depths. That engagement is one of the things that makes life so interesting.
I recall an experienced neurosurgeon who once told me that he saw (metaphorically) the neural pathways of the human body in different colors when he operated on the various parts of the nervous system. Fascinating! His was a mature and highly unified mind. He had been so engaged in his science for so many years that his intuition brought to his conscious mind during surgery an understanding that could only be the product of years of concentration on his craft and engagement in the healing arts.
And what are we to say of the mysterious and virtually infallible “woman’s intuition”? Well, women are famous for “dwelling” on the things they love, and oftentimes, that concentration of heart produces clear understandings about hidden depths of the world. It is a function of the mind that men as well as women do well to cultivate.
Most of us cannot recite the atomic number of each element of the Periodic Table or the organization of the rows and columns in the chart. That kind of factual knowledge is not necessary to understand how the chart came about. The core issue for us is that a brilliant scientist had deeply embraced these matters for years and that his powerful intuitive mind eventually “organized” them in his sleep one night.
An intuition as marvelous as the Periodic Table of Elements would never come to someone who was not a scientist. It could only come to someone who already had all the requisite materials in his mind. The unconscious mind put those materials together in a dream.
An intuition of this magnitude would also not come to someone who only casually studied these things. Mendeleev dwelt deeply on his science of chemistry. After many years of engagement with this subject, the fruit of all that study took graphic form in those colorful little boxes and symbols of the Periodic Table.
And the impact of that one marvelous dream has been felt by every student of science in every corner of the world since 1869.
The two conditions of a healthy intuitive mind are thus: 1) a focused mental engagement in some subject, and 2) a rested body and soul.
Today, resolve to cut down on distractions and dissipating activities. Ask yourself honestly whether or not you put your whole being into what you are doing, whether you immerse yourself in the subject or job at hand.
Stop multi-tasking. Do one thing at a time, fully engage in whatever is before you, and do it well.
Then make sure that you are physically and emotionally rested. Make it a priority to schedule vacations and leisure times over the course of the next few months and year.
We have it on the highest authorities – angels and scientists – that sleep produces marvels.
Quote Source: Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island (NY: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1983), 37-38.