When people say you should follow your dreams, they usually mean stuff like “go after your life’s goals,” and not “make out with a talking giraffe as your third-grade teacher watches from a UFO (also, you’re Obama for some reason).” And yet, some geniuses have achieved success doing exactly that. Not the giraffe thing, specifically, but basing their entire careers on some crazy thing they saw while fast asleep.
Here are six people who not only managed to remember their dreams for more than five seconds after waking up, but actually used them to change their lives (or the freaking world).
#6. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia Is Based On A Bizarre “Night Terror” The Creator Had
Before creating It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Rob McElhenney was probably best known as “teenager on property” in John Travolta’s A Civil Action. In 2004, he was living in a garage while trying to get by as one of the five billion unknown actors/waiters who populate Hollywood. It was in this garage that he had a strange “night terror” about a man going to borrow some sugar from his friend, only to be told that his friend had cancer, putting the sugar-borrower in an uncomfortable situation. McElhenney described the experience as a “late-night sweating station” — a thoroughly inexplicable phrase that someone means “a great premise for a comedy sketch.”
McElhenney scrounged together $200 and a couple of friends (his future Always Sunny co-stars Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton) and filmed the uncomfortable scene from his dream. Here it is (you can clearly see where every cent of that tremendous budget went):
Charlie Day’s eyeliner, yes.
The group took that and other homemade scenes and pitched them to FX, which immediately gave them a series. The network’s only stipulations were for McElhenney to change the setting from Los Angeles and to add a character with boobs.
We are, of course, referring to Danny DeVito.
Ten seasons of putting horrible people in awkward situations later, McElhenney is directing the Minecraft movie and has another big-budget film in production with Legendary Pictures. Presumably, he’s saved up enough to move out of that garage by now.
#5. Larry Page Came Up With Google’s Main Algorithm While Sleeping
Searching for something on the Internet in the pre-Google days was like looking for a needle in an overflowing toilet — you could probably find it, but not before wading through piles of shit and catching a dozen viruses. Websites were ranked based on how many times they mentioned the term you were looking for, which is why our site still says “Neve Campbell Denise Richards Wild Things” 87 times in invisible text below this article.
All of that changed because of one guy and a weird dream he had about downloading the whole Internet.
It probably looked like this.
That guy was Larry Page, the future co-founder of Google. In 1996, the 23-year-old Page had no intention of creating a search engine. He was a computer science student at Stanford University looking for a theme for his PhD dissertation. To give you an idea of the sort of topics he was considering, one of them “involved building a superlong rope that would run from the Earth’s surface all the way into orbit, making it cheaper to put objects in space.”
“And, like, what if birds had arms? Think about it. Whoa.”
Page eventually found a topic for his dissertation … in a dream. He literally woke up one night thinking he “could download the entire Web.” While most of us would have said “No, that’s stupid” and rolled over in bed, Page got up and started doing the math to figure out how to pull this off. The answer was: He couldn’t, obviously. Even back in 1996, there was already more porn online than could ever be downloaded, let alone all of the rest of the stupid bullshit we clutter up the Internet with.
What Page could do was save all the links on the Web, and then use them to determine the relevance of any website by calculating how many others linked to it. Page and his friend Sergey Brin realized that the best use for this technology was to create a search engine, and so they soon unveiled a revolutionary new site: BackRub.
“Googling” was dangerously close to being called “rubbing one out.”
One fortunate name change later, Google was born, and Page was on his way to becoming a billionaire.
#4. Srinivasa Ramanujan Got His Groundbreaking Formulas From Terrifying Nightmares
Srinivasa Ramanujan’s name is currently at the cutting edge of mathematics, which is pretty impressive when you consider that he’s been dead for 95 years. Despite having died in 1920 at the age of 32, the formulas he left behind have helped computers calculate Pi at trillions of digits and allowed physicists to understand black holes. But he didn’t come up with those formulas all on his own. He had help from his special lady, the Indian goddess Namagiri (also known as Lakshmi).
That extra pair of hands allows you to do all sorts of math.
We’ve talked before about the Good Will Hunting-esque story of a young Ramanujan emerging from the woods to kick the collective brainpower of the world’s finest mathematicians in the balls. However, we left out the weirdest part: All his crazy math slam dunks came to him — fully formed — in his dreams. All he had to do upon waking up was jot them down and check them. So, not unlike Stephanie Meyer, his career was founded on equal parts cold calculation and keeping a dream journal.
Now, you probably associate “dreaming about math” with being naked in the classroom before the big test, but Ramanujan’s night visions were even more terrifying than that. For example, he would be standing in front of a red screen made of flowing blood, which a disembodied hand would then write results on. “They stuck to my mind,” Ramanujan says, which is perhaps one of the gentlest understatements we have ever read.
“The shadow death specters’ thoughts on Pythagoras were quite convincing.”
Ramanujan credited these dreams to the goddess Namagiri. Unfortunately, the deity was kind of lazy and didn’t provide him with mathematical proofs, only the finished formulas. As a result, the finest mathematical minds in the world have spent the past century verifying and trying to make sense of Ramanujan’s incredible formulas, and they’re still at it today. Meanwhile, Will Hunting is driving across the country in a Chevy Nova.
#3. Frederick Banting Dreamed Up The Treatment For Diabetes
Back in 1920, the main treatment for diabetes was a starvation diet and positive thinking, which was every bit as effective as it sounds. Most children with the disease died within a year. One night, Frederick Banting, a young lecturer at the University of Western Ontario, read an article about diabetes before going to bed. Because that’s apparently what passes for light reading when you’re a bright-eyed professorial candidate in the roaring ’20s.
“The Saturday Evening Post can get a little too intense.”
But then, while half asleep at 2 a.m., Banting was suddenly kissed by the science muses. He scribbled down 25 words outlining a crazy dream scheme of surgically tying up a dog’s pancreas to let it degenerate:
The last bit trails off into a scene of him eating spaghetti on a hot air balloon with his college roommate.
If he let a dog’s pancreas degenerate, Banting reasoned that he could 1) give the animal diabetes, and 2) isolate a mysterious secretion given out by a specific part of the organ.
Surprisingly, it took over six months before he convinced someone to lend him both a laboratory and a dog. But once he did, his plan went like clockwork. By taking out the shriveled remains of the diabetic dog’s pancreas, grinding them up, and injecting them right back into the dog’s blood, he managed to keep the dog alive. He’d just discovered insulin, the stuff diabetics need to keep their glucose at non-lethal levels, since their pancreas no longer produces it. Banting later tried his “insulin injection” cure on a 14-year-old boy, who promptly recovered from a terminal case of type 1 diabetes.
“What do you mean I can’t cut him open? What’s the point, then?”
#2. Otto Loewi Wins A Nobel Prize For An Experiment He Invented In A Dream
Ever written something down late at night, thinking it was the most brilliant thing ever, but then tried to read it in the morning and found that it looked like a pile of scrawled dick shapes? The same thing happened to German pharmacologist Dr. Otto Loewi in 1920 … and if his story is any indication, you could have won a Nobel Prize if only you’d tried a little harder to decode the meaning of all those penises.
“The loop in the left scrotum is definitely trying to tell me something.”
Up until the early 20th century, the medical consensus regarding nerves was that they worked through “electricity or something, whatever, who gives a shit.”  Loewi believed for many years that nerve cells in fact communicate by a chemical process. But he had no way of proving this, and it turns out that’s super important in science.
One night in 1920, Loewi woke up overwhelmed with joy because he had dreamt of an experiment that would finally prove his theory. Sleepily, he jotted down some hazy notes and went back to bed. To his horror, when he woke up the next day, he couldn’t read his sloppy handwriting. Thankfully, Loewi must have watched the same episode of Frasier two nights in a row, because he had the exact same dream the following night. Not to anger the gods of science any more, Loewi immediately got up and went to straight to his lab.
He did take the time to change from his nighttime bow tie into his laboratory bow tie.
The experiment consisted of making a frog’s heart beat slower or faster by applying fluids from another heart that was already beating at the desired speed — which proved that nerves tell muscles what to do via a distribution of chemicals, not by zapping them with tiny electrical impulses. Loewi named this substance “vagusstoff,” but it was later renamed to something that didn’t sound like a personal hygiene product.
Loewi’s almost-forgotten dream discovery netted him the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1936, and he was also named the “father of neuroscience” by whoever hands out those titles.
#1. H.P. Lovecraft’s Writing Came From His Childhood Nightmares
H.P. Lovecraft invented a new genre of literature (cosmic horror) by taking the boundless unknowable horizon of space and adding a shitload of tentacles. If you’re at all familiar with his work, it probably won’t surprise you to hear that much of what he wrote came to him in the form of vivid, pants-shitting nightmares. However, what may surprise you is the fact that he began having these nightmares when he was a little … um, child.
“Yep. I’m definitely going to grow up and despise immigrants.” — H.P. Lovecraft
It all started when Lovecraft’s grandmother died. He was five years old, and not particularly close to the lady herself, but the fact that his mother and sister started wearing black every day scared the crap out of him. The constant terror seeped into his sleep, and he started dreaming of “night-gaunts” — terrifying figures he described as “black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all.” Their favorite hobby was to take the young kid out of his bed and fling him across space, because sometimes you just have to throw children.
As the monsters played cosmic volleyball with him, young Lovecraft would glimpse “dead and horrible cities” below him. While other kids painted flowers or their families or other stupid bullshit, H.P. would draw these nightmare space beasts — a habit he kept into adulthood, when he began writing stories about them.
Cthulhu definitely looks like he’s unloading the dark secrets of an outer dimension,
but perhaps not in the way Lovecraft intended.
So there you have it. Lovecraft created a complex horror mythology as a frightened five-year-old, and definitely wasn’t toyed with by interdimensional beings. Nope, it was totally a series of creepy interconnected dreams, and definitely not a case of a young mind being an antennae into the interspatial universe of demon gods.