June 6, 2023

Quick catnaps may spark creativity

At a Glance

  • Researchers found evidence that the brief period when drifting off to sleep may be a sweet spot for dreams that facilitate creative thinking and problem solving.
  • The findings add to growing evidence that the earliest stage of sleep might be harnessed and guided to enhance creativity.
Young woman drifting above the clouds on a boat with a tree growing in it and butterflies and birds flying around. The study gives insight into the links between sleep, dreams, and creativity. pathdoc / Adobe Stock

Poets, artists, and other creative thinkers have long suspected a link between dreams and creativity. Many scientific studies have looked into the details of REM sleep, when deep dreaming occurs. But less is known about the twilight period between wakefulness and sleep. This is sometimes called sleep onset, hypnagogia, or N1 sleep. It’s a semi-lucid state when you’re partly aware of your surroundings as vivid dreams begin. These early N1 dreams are often forgotten if you continue on into later stages of sleep.

Although scientific details have been lacking, creative luminaries like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali were reportedly among those who recognized the importance of N1 sleep. To get a jolt of creativity, they sometimes napped while holding a heavy object that would drop and wake them as they drifted off to sleep. Then they could draw on any novel ideas or solutions gained from their early-stage dreams.

To better understand the links between N1 dreams and creativity, a research team based at MIT and Harvard University developed a method to allow them to deliver spoken cues to study participants and introduce specific themes into dream content during the earliest stage of sleep. Participants wore a sleep-tracking device called Dormio that was developed in part by study coauthors. The glove-like device measures changes in heart rate, muscle tone, and skin conductance as indicators of sleep. An associated app on a smartphone or laptop could respond to sleep changes and play and record sounds. Results were reported in Scientific Reports on May 15, 2023.

The team studied 49 healthy adults who were divided into four groups. Two groups were instructed to drift off to sleep and two were asked to close their eyes, stay awake, and let their minds wander as they lay in a darkened room. Each participant wore the Dormio glove during the 45-minute test periods.

One of the “sleep” groups was prompted to think about a theme—in this case, “trees.” Each time Dormio detected sleep, a spoken cue awoke participants and asked them to describe their dreams. It then asked them to drift back to sleep while thinking about a tree. The other sleep group was likewise awakened each time sleep was detected, but they were simply asked to describe their dreams and return to sleep. The two “awake” groups were prompted every few minutes to describe their thoughts. One group was asked to “continue thinking about a tree,” while the other was asked to be mindful of their thoughts.

After the test period, participants performed three tasks designed to measure creativity: creative storytelling that included the word “tree,” listing alternative uses for a tree, and noun-verb matching related to trees. Task scores were combined to create a single creativity score for each participant.

Overall, participants in the two sleep groups had higher creativity scores than those in the awake groups. Participants who dreamt about trees had creativity scores that were significantly higher than those who slept without the cue to think about trees. They outperformed those who stayed awake in both groups by even more.

“When you are prompted to dream about a topic during sleep onset, you can have dream experiences that you can later use for these creative tasks,” says MIT’s Kathleen Esfahany, a lead author of the study.

“One of the goals of our group is to give people more insights into how their brain works, and also what their cognitive state is and how they may be able to influence it,” adds co-principal investigator Dr. Pattie Maes. “That's really our goal with a lot of this work: to give people more tools to learn how to harness their own minds.”

—by Vicki Contie

Related Links

References: Targeted dream incubation at sleep onset increases post-sleep creative performance. Horowitz AH, Esfahany K, Gálvez TV, Maes P, Stickgold R. Sci Rep. 2023 May 15;13(1):7319. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-31361-w. PMID: 37188795.

Funding: NIH’s National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and the MIT Media Lab consortium.