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.
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"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 voilà! 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
Tips for Using Sleep to Enhance Creativity
Mednick offers these tips for using sleep to set your mind free.
Be prepared for inspiration. Right before you go to sleep, jot
down the problem or idea you're working on. As soon as you wake up, jot down
whatever ideas you had.
Take sleep seriously. If you have trouble sleeping through the
night, use earplugs and an eye mask.
Nap on it. Catching a nap can be just as effective for
integrating memories. Make sure you stay asleep for 60 to 90 minutes, long
enough to go into the REM stage. And time your nap with care. Mednick says
creativity during naps peaks when your state is balanced between slow-wave and
Sara Mednick, PhD, Laboratory of Sleep and Behavioral Neuroscience, Department
of Psychiatry, University of California, San Diego.
Cai, D. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 23, 2009;
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Wagner U. Nature, January 22, 2004; vol 427: pp 352-355.
Mednick, S. Nature Neuroscience, July 6, 2003; vol 6: pp 697-698.
Kate Miller, founder, Charlie's Playhouse.