Sleep on It for Creative Solutions
By Steve Gillman - 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 stimulusresponse 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
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
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
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."
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.