We all get stuck. Whether it’s writer’s block, procrastination or simply the feeling that we’ve run out of avenues to pursue, eventually we all hit some form of creative problem. We know the old adage “just sleep on it” and many of us have even tried it. There is sufficient evidence to suggest that sleep can inspire creative insight, but sometimes we awake without the breakthrough we were dreaming for. But some brand new research suggests that perhaps you should add something else to your sleep: smell.
In a study of 49 sleep lab participants, researchers led by Simone Ritter of Radboud University in the Netherlands discovered that the positive boost to creative insight caused by sleep could be increased by an evocative odor. Upon arriving at the sleep laboratory, all of the participants watched a 10 minute video about volunteer work and were asked to ponder a specific question as they were sent to bed: How can people be motivated to volunteer more of their time? Participants were told they would have to provide creative solutions when they arose from sleep.
To test their hypothesis, researchers divided the participants into three groups. The first group simple came to the laboratory, watched the video and went to sleep (sleep-with-no-odor). While the second and third group watched the video, however, a hidden scent diffuser spread the odor of orange-vanilla through the air. When participants in these groups went to bed, they were given an envelope containing another scent diffuser. Half of them received a new scent (sleep-with-control odor) while the other half received the same orange-vanilla scent (sleep-with-conditioned-odor). When all of the participants awoke the next morning, they were given two minutes to generate as many ideas as possible for encouraging volunteer work and then asked to identify the most innovative idea.
The researchers then gave the participants’ lists to two separate raters, who scored all of the ideas according to their creativity, showing a preference for ideas that were both novel and useful. When the researchers computed all of the scores, they found that those in the sleep-with-conditioned-odor group, those participants smelling orange-vanilla all night, generated far more creative solutions than the other two groups. In addition, the orange-vanilla group was most likely to agree with the raters about which of their ideas were the most creative.
Before you stock up on orange-vanilla air fresheners, it’s important to understand the researchers explanation of their findings. It’s not the specific odor that matters much. What the researchers suspect is that being exposed during sleep to the same scent that participants smelled during the video helped participants subconscious better activate connections in their mind and kept their sleeping brains working better at processing solutions.
The findings have interesting implications for those of us looking to “sleep on it.” By controlling the scent in the room as we sleep, we might better be able to steer our nocturnal mind toward a specific problem and awake with the creative insight of our dreams.