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Sleep on It for Creative Solutions

By - December 2012

I have previously written on the topic of using sleep for greater creativity, but there is more to say now, thanks to recent studies. Here are examples of a couple of these scientific findings, and how you can put them to practical use.

Generating Creative Insight

Recent research on creativity shows that sleep can help you have that "aha" moment. One study done in Germany found that creative insight was more common after people had slept for eight hours rather than after eight hours awake. Subjects were asked to learn stimulus–response sequences, and they normally improved gradually in terms of response time. At times the improvement in task completion times improved quickly due to insight into some obscure rule that determined the sequences. In other words, they sometimes had a flash of insight that made the whole task easier.

After this initial training in the task, subjects were tested again after eight hours of being awake during the day, eight hours or wakefulness at night, or eight hours of sleep. After sleep, more than twice as many subjects had that flash of insight into the secret rule that determined the sequences. Interestingly, sleeping did not help if the subjects had not yet been trained to do the tasks.

That last point suggests something I have alluded to in other articles on creativity. It is that you need to first work on a problem consciously for a while before you can expect help from your unconscious mind. And if you specifically want to sleep on a problem in order to come upon a solution, you should work on it prior to going to bed.

Note: I also have a page with a few more tips on creative insight and how to have it come to you more often. What else can you do to use sleep for creative purposes? Read on...

Using Odors to Trigger Nocturnal Creativity

As recently reported in the Journal of Sleep Research, Radboud University Behavioral Science Institute (in the Netherlands) did a study in which odors were used as triggers for the sleeping mind, in order to get it to work on a problem. The idea was that if, while a person was asleep, his or her mind was reminded of a problem that needed a solution, it would be more likely to work on that and find a creative solution. This was tested using 49 young adults (age from 18 to 29).

The subjects watched a video about volunteer work and were told to think about how people could be motivated to do more volunteer work. Roughly a third of the subjects had no odor in the room as they watched the video and had their task explained, while the rest were in a room where an orange-vanilla odor was secretly diffused during the process. Then, when it was time to sleep, the ones who had been exposed to the odor were handed an envelope and told to open it before falling asleep. They contained scent diffusers. Half of this group got an envelope with the same scent they had been previously exposed to, while the other half got envelopes with a different odor inside. This allowed for three groups in total (no scent, same scent and different scent).

In the morning all subjects were asked to list any creative solutions they could for getting people to volunteer more. They were given just two minutes for this task. They were also instructed to choose which of their ideas was most creative, because the ability to recognize good ideas is considered a sign of creative ability.

The study used trained "raters" (it wasn't clear what that training consists of) to rate the ideas. They looked for both novelty and usefulness. It was found that those exposed to the orange-vanilla odor and later exposed to it during sleep as a subconscious reminder to the brain, were much more likely to have creative and useful ideas than those in either of the other two groups. They also were more likely to agree with the raters as to which ideas were most creative.

The researchers concluded that, "By applying the right means, we may be able to actively trigger creativity-related processes during sleep."

Additional Notes

If you want to use sleep on a problem as a way to come upon better and/or more creative solutions, it helps to keep a pen and notebook next to the bed, or a tape recorder that you can easily use while sleepy. Ideas that are not written down or recorded in some way are often forgotten.

Another trick, which has not been tested scientifically as far as I know, is to have just a bit of caffeine before you go to sleep. Do not do this if you need a good night's rest, but if you have nothing important planned for the next day, you might want to give it a try. Your dreams are likely to be more vivid (or perhaps just better-remembered?), and you could have more interesting ideas. Both of these effects have been part of my experience with caffeine and sleep so far.

For more ways to unlock your creativity, see the home page and look in the section on creativity and problem solving.


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