Skip to content

Mental Health Center

Font Size
A
A
A

Got a Problem? Try Sleeping on It

New research shows that getting enough sleep really does enhance your creativity.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature

When it comes to problem solving, getting enough sleep may truly be the secret to success.

Take the case of Kate Miller, the owner of Charlie's Playhouse, a maker of science education toys. Miller had been wrestling with a problem for weeks. But one morning the answer popped into her mind as she woke up. She wanted to design a game that would teach kids about natural selection while letting them run around and have fun.

Recommended Related to Mental Health

Skin Picking Disorder (Excoriation)

Many people pick at their skin once in a while, but sometimes it crosses the line into a condition called skin picking disorder (excoriation). When this happens, picking at the skin -- for example, picking a scab or the skin around your nails -- can become so frequent and intense that it causes bleeding, sores, and scars. Some people with this disorder repeatedly scratch to try to remove what they see as some kind of imperfection in their skin.

Read the Skin Picking Disorder (Excoriation) article > >

"It was the sleep that brought it all together," says Miller, 42, of Providence, R.I. "I ran downstairs, got a big pad of paper, and started sketching and writing."

Artists have long intuited a link between creativity and sleep, but scientists are beginning to nail down the connection. There's evidence that sleep, specifically the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stage associated with dreaming, helps organize and link together in novel ways the facts we know and the things we experience.

How Sleep Boosts Creativity

"Creativity is the ability to connect disparate ideas in new and useful ways," says Sara C. Mednick, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. Her research indicates that REM sleep might enhance creative problem-solving by helping the brain associate seemingly unrelated ideas.

During the day, an area of the brain called the hippocampus takes in information and lets us hold it in our minds. It knows why you learned the information, Mednick says. For example, the hippocampus may learn that you need to turn at the red building to reach the doctor's office. During REM sleep, the hippocampus shuts down and allows the information it stored to move into the neocortex, the part of the brain that holds the sum of all of your experiences. Once a memory or experience reaches the neocortex, it can be associated with all the other memories.

And that's where creativity happens, Mednick says. The neocortex might match that shade of red on the building with the need to come up with the color for a toy, and voilĂ ! Priming your brain to make these new connections seems to be key, research shows. An idea might seem to come out of nowhere, but in fact, it's the end of a process that may have begun days ago.

Miller says her crazy, beautiful, and totally new ideas come to her when she wakes up. "They always make me jump out of bed and run to write them down."

Today on WebMD

contemplation
Differences between feeling depressed or feeling blue.
lunar eclipse
Signs of mania and depression.
 
man screaming
Causes, symptoms, and therapies.
woman looking into fridge
When food controls you.
 
Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
Article
senior man eating a cake
Article
 
Phobias
Slideshow
woman reading medicine warnings
Article
 
depressed young woman
Article
man with arms on table
Article
 
veteran
Article
man cringing and covering ears
Article
 

WebMD Special Sections