“Sleep On It” to Boost Your Creativity
Science shows sleep is beneficial for generating creative ideas.
Posted December 12, 2017
In the third post for my “The Writer’s Laboratory” series, I suggested that writers often get their ideas from their unconscious mind rather than their conscious mind. To illustrate these two mental systems, I used the analogy of a tourist riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon. In that analogy, I referred to the writer’s unconscious mind as their “inner mule” and their conscious mind as their “inner rider.”
In that post, I suggested that writers hate answering the question, “Where do you get your ideas” because in truth they don’t really know. Their ideas often come to them when their inner rider is asleep or bored, allowing their inner mule to speak up.
“You get ideas from daydreaming,” Neil Gaimen once told his seven-year-old daughter’s class when they asked him the infamous question. “You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it.”
So it’s not that successful writers have more creative ideas than the rest of us. They just do a better job of listening to their inner mule when it starts talking. But what do you do if your inner mule just isn’t cooperating? Each day this week I will post a new tip (based on psychological science research, of course!) that should spur your inner mule into action. And keep in mind these tips are not just limited to generating creative writing ideas, they help spur creativity for any kind of endeavor.
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Today’s tip focuses on sleep. It seems counterintuitive but the best way to get your mind working may be to put it to sleep. Lots of scientists have discussed how some of their best ideas came to them either in a dream or upon waking. Thomas Edison, for instance, would nap with steel balls in his hands held over a metal pan so that when he dropped them, presumably because he was dreaming up some juicy solution, he’d awaken with new and creative answers to his problems.
Lots of writers have also mentioned how sleep has helped their creative process. For example, Stephen King tells a great story in On Writing about how he fell asleep on a long plane flight from New York to London and had a terrifying dream about a famous writer who is captured and held hostage by a psychotic fan. When he awoke from the dream, he could still hear the crazed fan’s dialogue in his head so he jotted it down on an airline cocktail napkin. That snippet of an idea would go on to be Misery , one of King’s best novels.
Similarly, John Steinbeck wrote in Sweet Thursday, “It is a common experience that a problem difficult at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”
Lots of research backs up the idea that sleep boosts creativity. For example, in one study by Wagner and colleagues , participants were given a challenging and time-consuming number task. However, what the participants didn’t know was that there was a hidden secret strategy built into the task and if they figured it out, it would greatly speed up their progress. All participants were introduced to the task and them some were allowed eight hours of sleep while others were kept awake. After the eight hours had passed, participants resumed working on the task. The results showed that 60 percent of the sleep group discovered the hidden strategy compared to only 23 percent of the wake group.
According to these researchers, sleep allowed the participants’ brains to mentally restructure the information learned, resulting in new and insightful responses. To put it another way, when you learn something new and then immediately sleep on it, what you learned becomes clearer and more creative.
Don’t have time for a solid eight hours of sleep? No problem. Research shows similar creativity benefits occur for mid-day naps too. In fact, this study found a 60- to 90-minute midday nap was more effective in boosting brain performance than 200 mg of caffeine (the equivalent to two shots of espresso)!
I mentioned in my prior post that I write stories in my mind long before I put anything down on paper. Most of my “mind writing” occurs just as I’m trying to fall asleep or just as I’m waking up (and sometimes, like Stephen King, a snippet of the story comes to me in dreams. So if you find yourself stuck on stale ideas or trying to work through some problem in your writing, try to think about the problem just before you fall asleep. One study found that when people did this, half of them dreamed about the problem and for 70 percent of them, their dream included a novel solution to their problem.
Just make sure that if you follow this advice, you keep a notepad or journal by your bed. That way if your inner mule starts chattering in the middle of the night, you can write down your creative ideas and then hopefully go back to sleep!
[Note: This post is part of my blog series called "The Writer's Laboratory." See my introductory post for more information.]
Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas! And for more information on The Writer’s Laboratory blog, with simple tips on how to use psychological research to improve your writing, visit www.melissaburkley.com