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Do Lucid Dreams Promote Creativity?

Research suggests narcolepsy—and lucid dreaming—are linked to higher creativity.

We constantly hear that dreams spark creativity. There are reports of scientific breakthroughs appearing in dreams, as well as of artistic masterpieces appearing ready-made to the dreamer (the song “Yesterday,” for instance, reportedly came to Paul McCartney in a dream). But what do we have beyond anecdotal reports of dream creativity?

In fact, recent scientific work on the issue has begun to provide very consistent support for links between REM sleep, dreaming, and creativity—with dreaming per se looking like the key ingredient.

Dream recall frequency, narrative complexity, and certain dream content indicators have all been correlated with various creativity measures in research. People who learn to "incubate" a problem in their dreams are often able to reliably dream up a solution—one that may not always solve the problem immediately, but that they later judge to have been significantly helpful in devising a "real" solution. Lucid dreaming, in particular, has been positively linked both with creativity and with problem-solving successes. But while all of these clues are suggestive and interesting, it would be beneficial to have some controlled studies on dream creativity.

A recent report by Lacaux et al. [1] comes close to that. The researchers took a novel approach to the study of dreams and creativity. They looked at people who spend a lot of time in a dreaming state and who frequently experience lucid dreams—namely, people with narcolepsy.

Narcolepsy is essentially a disorder of disinhibited REM sleep. The waking life of these individuals is frequently interrupted by full-blown, unpredictable episodes of REM. Patients report feelings of dreaminess and hallucinatory states when REM interrupts their conscious life. If cataplexy (the body paralysis that accompanies REM sleep) occurs alongside dreaminess and hallucinations, the individual may suddenly lose motor control and drop, paralyzed but conscious.

Interestingly, people with narcolepsy report a large amount of lucid dreams. They are more often conscious of dreaming in REM sleep than other people appear to be. In short, as the authors put it: Relative to the rest of us, people with narcolepsy exhibit a privileged access both to REM sleep and to dreams. Thus, they are a perfect group to study if one is interested in dreams and creativity. If dreams promote creativity, then narcoleptics should, in theory, evidence greater creativity than control populations.

Of course, one problem with this straightforward hypothesis is that you could just as easily predict that narcoleptics would be less creative, given the fact that the disorder is associated with fragmented REM sleep, poor sleep quality overall, and other neurologic and cognitive problems. In addition, these individuals are typically on medications that may impact cognitive functions. Despite these problems, the authors found some interesting evidence for unusual creativity in narcoleptics.

They administered creativity tests to 185 persons with narcolepsy and 126 healthy controls who were matched for age, gender, and laterality with the subjects from the narcolepsy group. Participants completed several assessments of creativity, including the Test of Creative Profile (TCP), the Creative Achievement Questionnaire (CAQ), and The Evaluation of Potential Creativity (EPoC)

The TCP contains 57 yes/no questions, examining three different types of creativity: "Innovative," "Imaginative," and "Researcher." An Innovative person, for instance, tries to change situations into better ones, while an Imaginative profile indicates persons interested in imaginary realms. The Researcher profile generally consists of scientists or inventors who are guided by a specific subject.

The CAQ, on the other hand, is an assessment of creative achievement across 10 domains (visual arts, music, dance, architectural design, creative writing, humor, inventions, scientific discovery, theater/film, and the culinary arts). The EPoC test battery assesses two key modes of creative thinking: divergent-exploratory thinking (i.e., finding the greatest number of solutions based on a given stimulus) and convergent-integrative thinking (i.e., integrating several elements into a coherent synthesis) on two different domains of expression (graphic and verbal).

Results showed that subjects with narcolepsy obtained significantly higher scores than controls on the creativity tests (for example, they scored higher on all three TCP creative profiles: Innovator, Imaginative, and Researcher). In addition, all symptoms of narcolepsy other than cataplexy—including sleepiness, hypnagogic hallucinations, sleep paralysis, lucid dreaming, and rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder—were significantly associated with higher creativity scores. Lucid dreaming, in particular, was strongly associated with measures of creativity. Notably, 43 percent of the 185 subjects with narcolepsy were frequent lucid dreamers, compared to just 3 percent of the 126 normal controls,

Medications were not associated with creativity scores. Nor could something like differences in the subjects' IQs explain the results. Indeed, education levels (arguably a proxy for intelligence) were lower among narcoleptics. Remarkably, despite these lower overall education levels—and despite the disabilities associated with a chronic neurological disease such as narcolepsy—the narcoleptics nevertheless evidenced more creativity than healthy controls. In short, these findings strongly suggest that something about REM sleep and dreaming appears to enhance creativity.

It would have been useful if the authors had collected dream reports from the participants in order to assess the extent to which dream content patterns predicted differing levels and patterns of creativity. In addition, it would have been beneficial if the authors had analyzed the creativity data as a function of those who reported lucid dreaming vs. those who did not. We would have then been on firmer ground to assess the extent to which lucid dreaming per se (rather than REM sleep or dreaming more generally) enhances creativity.

There are several theories concerning REM sleep and dreaming that could account for links between dreaming and creativity. One idea is that while non-REM slow wave sleep consolidates memories, REM combines and recombines disparate memory elements and traces in novel—and sometimes random—ways, thus resulting in unusual cognitive effects. That account strikes me as potentially correct, but it is more descriptive than explanatory. Why dreaming promotes creativity remains a mystery.

Whatever the mechanistic reasons for the dreaming-creativity connection, the accumulating research is making me more and more confident that the connection is real—and substantial.

References

(Lacaux C, Izabelle C, Santantonio G, De Villèle L, Frain J, Lubart T, Pizza F, Plazzi G, Arnulf I, Oudiette D. Increased creative thinking in narcolepsy. Brain. 2019 May 29. pii: awz137. doi: 10.1093/brain/awz137. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 31143939)

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