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.