The secret to being more creative: sleep

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Could sleep be the secret way to unlock your own creativity?  New research suggests it might be… Business Optimizer investigates.

Creativity is a sought-after gift in today’s world.  Educationalists bemoan its demise.  Business leaders wonder how to access more of it.  Those who possess it are regarded with wonder.  Those who don’t, wonder how to get it.

If you’re someone who falls into that latter category, then new research from Cardiff University suggests the answer might be very simple: it’s all in your sleep habits.

In his fabulous text On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, American author Stephen King extols the virtues of “creative sleep”.  He recommends sticking to a regular sleep pattern:

as your mind and body grow accustomed to a certain amount of sleep each night – six hours, seven, maybe the recommended eight – you can train your waking mind to sleep creatively, and work out vividly imagined waking dreams, which are successful works of fiction.


The Power of sleep

Henry David Thoreau also appreciated the power of sleep or, more accurately, dreams to inform our conscious thought.  In A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers he wrote: “In dreams we see ourselves naked and acting out our real characters, even more clearly than we see others awake. But an unwavering and commanding virtue would compel even its most fantastic and faintest dreams to respect its ever wakeful authority; as we are accustomed to say carelessly, we should never have dreamed of such a thing. Our truest life is when we are in dreams awake.”

While great writers may have been attuned to the creative power of sleep for centuries, the research from Cardiff University sheds some light on how it works.  Penny Lewis and two of her colleagues have developed a new theory that explains why sleep and creativity are linked.

They explain how the two main phases of sleep—REM and non-REM—work together to help us find unrecognized links between what we already know, and discover out-of-the-box solutions to vexing problems.

An analogy would be two researchers who initially work on the same problem together, then go away and each think about it separately, then come back together to work on it further,” Lewis writes.  “The obvious implication is that if you’re working on a difficult problem, allow yourself enough nights of sleep, particularly if you’re trying to work on something that requires thinking outside the box, maybe don’t do it in too much of a rush.”

Lewis’ theory certainly holds true in the case of Nobel Prize winning scientist Otto Loewi.  Famously, he woke abruptly one night obsessed with an important idea.  He wrote the idea down on paper and went back to sleep.

When he woke in the morning, he found little more than illegible scribbles.  However, the dream reasserted itself again the following night – and this time his wakeful self-recalled the design of an experiment involving neurotransmitters.

It was the basis of the experiment in which he proved that nerve cells communicate by exchanging chemicals – the finding that won Loewi a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1936.

While we can’t guarantee that more sleep will make you into a Nobel-prize-winning genius or a great writer, we can offer some tips on how to switch off at night and how to get better sleep – which are the first steps to discovering the benefits sleep could have on your own creativity.