Got a Problem? Try Sleeping on It

New research shows that getting enough sleep really does enhance your creativity.

Medically Reviewed by Michael J. Breus, PhD on April 21, 2010
3 min read

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.

"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.

"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 down."

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 REM sleep.