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How Sleep Can Help You Find Creative Solutions to Problems

Exploring research on sleep and creativity.

Key points

  • Research is increasingly showing the importance of sleep to emotional processing, learning consolidation, and creativity.
  • New research indicates that brief periods of N1 sleep may help with the development of creative solutions to problems.
  • A method similar to that used by Thomas Edison can be applied to see if this approach can improve one's own creativity.
Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash
selective focus photography of light bulb
Source: Photo by Ameen Fahmy on Unsplash

I was certified in the provision of biofeedback in the 1980s. Biofeedback works by providing real-time information about the physiological functioning of the body to an individual by using electronic measurement and display devices. Biofeedback allows for learning greater control of processes that are usually automatic and not under conscious control. For example, using skin temperature feedback one can learn to relax the arterial muscles in the periphery of the body allowing the hands to warm. The resulting deep relaxation can help with the management of problems such as anxiety and headaches.

Neurofeedback is a type of biofeedback that is usually provided using surface EEG recordings. People can, for example, learn to increase alpha brain wave production, which promotes relaxation. While I was learning about neurofeedback, I heard a story about Thomas Edison and I wasn’t sure if it was actually true or if it was just a good tale. Supposedly, Edison would sit with metal balls in his hands as he gradually drifted off to sleep. As his hands relaxed the balls would fall, waking him, whereupon he would write down all the creative ideas that had come to mind.

The idea is that the theta state, during the transition from the relaxed alpha state to the mixed frequency, low amplitude EEG of stage one sleep (non-REM stage one or N1 sleep), is a particularly creative time. You may be familiar with the story about how a scientist deduced the structure of the benzene ring in a brief dream-like state early in the night and quickly wrote it down before he forgot the important details. (This story may not, however, be completely factually accurate.) From an early age, I had noted, myself, that many creative ideas did seem to emerge during this drowsy transition. As it turns out, the story about Edison may well be true and there is evidence that this transition time between wake and sleep is indeed one with creative potential.

Moutinho (2021) recounted the Edison story and also noted that the surrealistic artist Salvador Dalí had used a similar technique, but dropped a heavy key rather than a steel ball as he was drifting off to sleep. Dali was also eager to access the creative ideas produced in this pre-sleep state. Given the accomplishments, technological and artistic, of these two individuals, it is worth investigating this strategy further.

Studying the transition period from wakefulness to sleep

This transition period is one you most likely have some memories of yourself. When we are drifting off to sleep, we may have some awareness of a period of time in which we are having images that are often in pastel colors and may consist of blobs and stylized images that drift in the visual field and fade gradually as we transition into a deeper sleep. As I have discussed in previous posts, research is increasingly showing the importance of sleep to emotional processing, learning consolidation, and creativity. This transition period may be one of considerable significance to the beneficial effects of sleep.

Indeed, new research by Lacaux, Andrillon, Bastoul, Idir, Fonteix-Galet, Arnulf, & Oudiette (2021), showed that a version of Edison’s technique led to significant improvement in study participants’ ability to solve math problems. The key was to wake the participants during the transition period from wake to sleep.

This study involved 103 participants and focused on stage N1 sleep, which has been an area of little research when compared to the work that has been done on deep sleep and REM sleep with regard to cognitive functions such as memory consolidation. Previous research has indicated that creative thinking involves the interaction of brain areas responsible for spontaneous thinking and cognitive control so that new ideas can be generated and evaluated. The authors note that these conditions are met during stage N1 sleep with the additional benefit of the dream-like experiences noted above that incorporate recent experiences with associated memories in a creative way. In this state, we are able to watch the activity of our minds while still retaining some logical ability to note creative ideas.

In this study, creative insight was defined as suddenly finding the solution to a problem. They “were given strings of eight digits and instructed to reach a final digit solution as quickly as possible. To do so, they were informed that applying two simple rules in a stepwise manner would lead to the solution. Unbeknownst to them, a hidden rule permitted them to shortcut the series of operations and obtain the solution much faster” (Lacaux et al, 2021, p. 1).

Of the participants, 16 were able to rapidly figure out the solution and were excluded from further analysis. The participants were given a 20-minute break and instructed to relax in a semi-reclined position with their eyes closed. They held an object in their right hand and if it fell, they were instructed to verbally report the thoughts they were having prior to the object dropping. Participants were monitored with standard polysomnography measures such as EEG.

There were three types of responses during the relaxation period. Some participants remained awake, some showed only N1 sleep, and some progressed to N2 sleep. Interestingly, when allowed to work on the math problem again, the participants that reached N1 sleep but not N2 sleep subsequently found the hidden rule 2.7 times more often than those in the group that remained awake and 5.8 times more often than the group that progressed into N2 sleep. The percentages were similar for the awake and N2 groups. Only 3 of the 16 participants who figured out the special rule before the sleep opportunity achieved N1 only sleep during their nap opportunity, indicating no relationship between the napping experience and general insight abilities.

Unlike Edison’s experience, however, the insight into the problem only came after further work on it after the nap opportunity. In fact, it took an average of 94 further trials working on the problem for the breakthrough to occur. So a brief period of N1 sleep improved insight but the effect was abolished if there was an occurrence of stage N2 sleep. So, this brief period of N1 sleep helped improve insight into problems but not in a direct, obvious way and seems to improve the effect of further work on the problem. It does seem that Edison’s method has the potential to improve creative problem-solving. The authors of the study suggest that new technologies that are being developed may allow for more precise awakening than that provided by the object drop method. Clearly, further research is needed.

This has been a very difficult year, during a run of difficult years. We’ve known the pandemic, environmental crises, political turmoil, unsettling economic developments, continued war and conflict, as well as all the personal losses that many have experienced. Therapists are reporting unprecedented levels of anxiety, depression, and relationship problems among patients while battling burnout themselves. It has been a hard year for many but we continue to work to improve the world and create a better future as best we can.

In fact, this year was not just a post-apocalyptic Mad Max kind of world. Positive developments did also occur. Among them were the widespread availability (at least in the more economically privileged parts of the planet) of effective vaccines against COVID-19, the increasing use and benefit of telemedicine, the ability to work at our jobs remotely, the US rejoining the Paris climate accord, and Juneteenth becoming a national holiday.

I hope that some of the information in this blog has been of benefit to the readers of Psychology Today. I am now in the 14th year of writing the “Sleepless in America” blog and it has been a wonderful experience, working with the editors of Psychology Today, and sharing some of the developments in sleep science and medicine with readers. I am continuing to stay involved in the sleep field and am excited by the new knowledge research is likely to provide us in the new year.

At the same time, I am moving forward, focusing increasingly on other interests of mine such as psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy and integration, and the provision of psychological support through the use of apps.

"Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
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Source: "Yin and Yang" by Klem - This vector image was created with Inkscape by Klem, and then manually edited by Mnmazur.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

As such, this is my last post for the “Sleepless in America” blog. It’s been a good run and I will miss the opportunity to communicate with this audience in this way but all things must pass, as George Harrison once noted. I wish you all a very happy new year and hope that it is one filled with many nights of good sleep!

References

Lacaux, C., Andrillon, T., Bastoul, C., Idir, Y., Fonteix-Galet, A., Arnulf, I., Oudiette, D. (2021). Sleep onset is a creative sweet spot. Science Advances, 7 (50), 10 December 2021, DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abj5866

Moutinho, S. (2021). Edison was right: Waking up right after drifting off to sleep can boost creativity. Science, 8 December 2021, doi: 10.1126/science.acx9794

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