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Sleep and Creativity

How does catching some shut-eye help problem solving?

There are two very different traditions about the value of sleep in productivity. Thomas Edison (1847-1931), whose lifetime of inventions changed the world, believed that sleep was an idle activity that reduced the time available for work. He claimed that he slept only four hours a night and often hired employees because of their endurance. Special enforcers roamed his facilities, on the lookout for weary workers taking a surreptitious nap.

In contrast, there are many tales of scientific discoveries that seem to suggest that creative ideas can arise during sleep. Let’s look at a few of them, and then we’ll consider some possible ways in which sleep might contribute to creativity.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Dante Gabriel Rossetti: The Day Dream
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Otto Loewi and the chemical transmission of nerve impulses:

In the early 20th century, there was contention among scientists about whether cells communicate primarily by electrical impulses or the release of chemicals. In 1921, the German-born pharmacologist Otto Loewi (1873-1961) awakened during the night with the design for an experiment to answer the question. He hastily wrote down some notes and returned to sleep.

In the morning, he was upset to find that he couldn’t read his nocturnal scribbles. The following night, the same thoughts came to him. He got up, went to his laboratory, and performed a study showing that the vagus nerve releases acetylcholine in the process of regulating heart rate, which later won him the Nobel prize.

August Kekulé and the structure of benzene:

One evening in 1865, the German chemist August Kekulé (1829-1896) was writing in front of his fireplace, trying to elucidate the structure of carbon-based molecules, such as benzene. While struggling with a difficult passage, he "fell half asleep." An image came to him of chains of dancing atoms, wriggling like snakes. One of them bit its own tail, making a circle. Upon awakening, Kekulé recognized that benzene was comprised of a ring-like structure, opening up the field of aromatic chemistry.

Dmitri Mendeleyev and the periodic table of chemical elements:

In the 1860s, the number of known chemical elements was in the 50s, and there was as yet no recognized principle that related them in a meaningful way. Then one night, the Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleyev (1834-1907) had a dream: "I saw in a dream a table where all elements fell into place as required. Awakening, I immediately wrote it down on a piece of paper…" (1). The table demonstrated periodicity: that is, recurring variations in the properties of chemical elements. His discovery made it possible to look for undiscovered elements that might occupy gaps in the table and to predict the chemical properties of new elements.

Examples of creative ideas that came during sleep are, of course, not confined to science. Among the many which could be mentioned are Paul McCartney coming up with the melody for Yesterday and James Cameron envisioning both The Terminator and Avatar. How sleep might enhance creativity is not yet well understood.

For several decades, there has been a sense that the type of thinking that occurs in sleep is different from waking. The psychiatrist and sleep researcher Ernest Hartmann suggested that in contrast to waking thought, which is guided by goal-directed, "linear" movement, the thinking in dreams is "lateral," guided by emotion (2). Joseph Campbell, known for his work in comparative mythology and religion, posited that dream consciousness is creative while waking consciousness is critical (3).

What can modern studies of sleep and creativity tell us about the process?

For one thing, it appears that, to some degree, creativity can be enhanced by using a conditioning technique to stimulate problem-solving during sleep. In one study, subjects were given a task during the evening before going to bed, and while trying to solve it, a hidden device emitted a particular odor that became associated with the task. They were then allowed to sleep in three conditions in which: 1) the associated odor was released during sleep; 2) a different, non-associated odor was released; and 3) no odor was released. It was found that subjects who had experienced the odor associated with solving the task performed more creatively the next morning than those exposed to the control odor or no odor (4).

One issue is whether sleep itself is helpful for creativity or whether there merely needs to be a period of "incubation," in which one is distracted from the problem. Some data suggest this is not the case and that there is something specific to REM sleep that is crucial. In one study, subjects were given the pieces of a problem using the Remote Associates Test, then allowed to either rest, have a nap with only NREM sleep, or have a nap which included REM. Afterward, the group which had experienced REM had the highest levels of integrating what had seemed to be unassociated information, and this did not appear to be due to improved memory of the material (5).

A broader topic is whether benefits are indeed specific to REM or to sleep itself, which is composed of 90-minute cycles of NREM and REM sleep. One model suggests that it is the interaction of these two states which leads to creativity. Each contributes in a different way. In NREM sleep, information is replayed in such a way that similarities are noticed, and a "gist" is formulated. In contrast, during REM sleep, the information is restructured in a manner based on analogic thinking, which moves beyond this rule-based thought, leading to creative solutions to problems (6). Whether this model will be supported as more studies become available is not yet known, but it does raise the intriguing possibility that the two major states of sleep work together, each making its own contribution as they cycle throughout the night.

In summary, Thomas Edison left behind a lifetime of amazing contributions, but he appears to have gone wrong in his firm conviction that sleep was a waste of time, to be avoided as much as possible. Tales of advances in the sciences and arts are supported by modern work showing an association of sleep with creative problem-solving. It seems less likely that sleep merely provides a time for incubation, but rather that it is actively involved in the process. Although not yet known, it is possible that this might result from an integrated activity in which each of the states inside sleep contributes to creatively solving problems.

Portions of this article were adapted from Molecules, Madness, and Malaria: How Victorian fabric dyes evolved into modern medicines for mental illness and infectious disease.


1. Myron E. Sharpe: ‘Soviet Psychology’ Vol. 5, p 30, 1967.

2. Hartmann, E.: On the Nature and Functions of Dreaming, Sleep Research Society Newsletter 3:,17, 1997. Also see: Hartmann, E.: The nature and functions of dreaming. Oxford University Press, 2010.

3. Campbell, J.: The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2018.

4. Ritter, S.M. et al.: Good morning creativity: Task reactivation during sleep enhances beneficial effect of sleep on creative performance. J. Sleep Res. 21: 643-647, 2012.

5. Cai, D.J. et al.: REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. PNAS 106 (25) 10130-10134, 2009.

6. Lewis, P.A.; Knoblich, G.; and Poe, G.: How memory replay in sleep boosts creative problem-solving. Trends Cognitive Sci. 22: 491-503, 2018.

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