Sleep for Creativity

Dreams are not “mean­ing­less nar­rat­ives” but are “layered with sig­ni­fic­ance and sub­stance”, laments insom­ni­ac Jonah Lehr­er as he con­siders the import­ance of dream­ing for cre­ativ­ity:

A group of stu­dents was giv­en a tedi­ous task that involved trans­form­ing a long list of num­ber strings into a new set of num­ber strings. This required the sub­jects to apply a painstak­ing set of algorithms. How­ever, […] there was an eleg­ant short­cut, which could only be uncovered if the sub­jects saw the subtle links between the dif­fer­ent num­ber sets. When left to their own devices, less than 25 per­cent of people found the short­cut, even when giv­en sev­er­al hours to mull over the task. How­ever, when [the research­er, Jan Born,] allowed people to sleep between exper­i­ment­al tri­als, they sud­denly became much more clev­er: 59 per­cent of all par­ti­cipants were able to find the short­cut. Born argues that deep sleep and dream­ing “set the stage for the emer­gence of insight” by allow­ing us to men­tally rep­res­ent old ideas in new ways.

So that’s anoth­er good reas­on to sleep well.

Before look­ing at how sleep is “an essen­tial com­pon­ent of cre­ativ­ity”, Lehr­er also describes this fas­cin­at­ing study: a selec­tion of rodents spent their day run­ning around a cir­cu­lar track, hav­ing their brain activ­ity mon­itored. Once the anim­als fell asleep, the research­ers noted that the brain activ­ity dis­played was identic­al to that dis­played while they were actu­ally run­ning around the track (i.e. they were dream­ing about run­ning). On fur­ther exam­in­a­tion, the research­ers then dis­covered that they could also pre­dict pre­cisely where on the track the rodents were at any giv­en point in their dream.