Why is my brain more creative when I'm asleep? And how can I prime it to be even more creative? In my last post I talked about how good ideas often come to me overnight, and I described the research that suggests why. The neuroscience says that while I'm sleeping, my brain is not. It's actively trying to make sense of what I've been working on. It also suggests that new insights occur when the brain relaxes its focus and allows distant connections to be made between previously unrelated ideas. But what does this mean in practical terms?

Say I've been writing during the day. Writing, in particular, requires intense focus on the immediate problem at hand. You must craft sentences that express your next idea, and these sentences must flow stylistically and logically from what you've just said. They also must be headed in the direction you want to go. Because of the relatively small capacity of working memory, you can't focus your attention on more than one task at a time. In order to execute this deep focus, you must inhibit other thoughts. It's as if your conscious brain makes a commitment to go in a certain direction, and it resists the mind wandering that might bring up novel approaches. It's only when you quit that concentrated focus that your brain is open to more far-flung ideas that might be residing in the remote corners of your brain.

I think this is why I sometimes get a good idea just as I'm about to fall asleep. It's as if my strict, stick-to-the-point brain censor has retired for the night and allowed a fresh idea to seep into consciousness. But more often, it's after I've slept for a while that the new ideas come up. Let me give you an example:

I recently agreed to be a blogger here (PsychologyToday.com), and was thrilled to have the potential to reach a much wider audience than would ever find the musings on my personal website. But then I wondered what I'd blog about. Having just written Conquer CyberOverload, I didn't want to just cut the book up into excerpts and rehash them. I pondered potential topics on and off for a few days, looking for ideas in the usual places. Then one afternoon I decided to get my writing juices flowing by looking over PT's guidelines for bloggers. I thought the section titled: "Six Tips for Writing Entertaining Posts" was really helpful. I didn't think any further about the Blog that evening, but I woke up very early the next morning with at least three ideas for posts (including this one). And my brain was not just giving me vague ideas: It was proposing titles and subtitles, turns of phrase, and full sentences! Fortunately, I was ready for these gifts-in-the-night, having gotten into the habit of keeping a small spiral notebook and pen next to my bed.

In-the-night scrawlings on my bedside notebook

That notebook and pen are always at my bedside now. Whenever I'm writing or preparing a speech or thinking about new projects (which is just about all the time these days), I depend on them to make sure I can jot down a few words that will save those ideas until I can use them. Sometimes, the new ideas are reminders of other studies I've read that are related to my topic. But more often, the ideas come from another realm—they're from popular culture or literature or my childhood—chunks of memory that make an immediate point in a way that another scientific finding could not. Without going into exactly where in the brain these outlying ideas might be stored (I'll leave that to the neuroscientists), I'm pretty sure they're waiting somewhere far away from my "academic storage area." I believe that the process of sleeping and breaking out of that inhibited mode of thinking permits these new and useful connections to emerge.

I don't believe in being a workaholic. I don't think it's effective for reasons I'll discuss in future posts. But I've got my brain working for me 24/7, and I guess, as Martha Stewart would say, that's a good thing.

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About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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