“Sleepstorming” – brainstorming in bed – can help unlock your creativity.
By Linda Melone
Struggling to come up with a solution to a nagging problem? Try sleeping on it.
Literally: In addition to all the health benefits of a good night’s sleep, time spent snoozing enables you to access creative problem-solving ideas you may not think of when you’re fully conscious.
“The brain can process complex information during sleep, creating interesting opportunities for problem-solving,” says Pierrick Arnal, PhD, sleep researcher and scientific director at Rythm, a San Francisco-based neurotechnology company. “Many scientific studies have shown that sleep and dreams are particularly helpful for finding solutions that require us to think outside of the box – especially when the required solution can be visualized.”
This idea of “sleep-storming,” technically known as structured unconscious generative ideation, is credited with some of the world’s greatest ideas. The key lies in REM sleep, the sleep stage in which dreams occur; it improves the creative process more than any other brain state, either asleep or awake.
“To be creative you need to get into eight phases of REM and non-REM sleep,” says Diane Roberts Stoler, EdD, a neuropsychologist in Andover, Massachusetts. “Think of this as the process of repairing a bridge. In order to make the repairs you need to first clear the traffic, make the repairs and then the traffic goes smoothly. That’s when everything is being connected.”
Once the brain becomes relaxed enough to create new neural pathways, ideas often occur. (This also explains why great ideas will pop into your head while taking a shower or going for a walk, when your brain isn’t in active mode.)
Tapping into this reservoir of brainy ideas isn’t difficult. A few simple steps before bedtime can increase your chances of waking up with a solution.
Learn Lucid Dreaming
Realizing you’re dreaming while in the dream state is known as lucid dreaming. “The sleeper is aware they are dreaming and is often able to influence the developing content of that particular dream,” says Arnal. “It has been reported that these dreams can help with problem-solving as well as generating new ideas.”
Although there’s some debate on the extent of its effectiveness, lucid dreaming training over a long period of time might increase creativity, says A.J. Marsden, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. “It makes sense that an individual who excels at lucid dreaming would also be more creative. When a person is lucid dreaming, the prefrontal cortex lights up and becomes more active—the same area of the brain responsible for creativity.”
To tap into the power of lucid dreaming, ask yourself throughout the day if you’re dreaming, so that you’ll subconsciously remember to do the same when you’re in a dream state, suggests Stephen Laberge, PhD, psychophysiologist and lucid dream expert. Waking up in the middle of the night, remembering the dream you were having and then going back to sleep, conscious that you were having this dream, can also help you enter a lucid dream state.
Famous Sleepstormed Ideas
The theory of relativity, Albert Einstein
“Yesterday,” The Beatles
The Terminator character, James Cameron
The periodic table of elements, Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev
The opening verse of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction,” Keith Richards (reportedly recorded into a tape recorder during the night)
Jot in a Journal
Keeping a record of your dreams can help boost creativity. It may be difficult to remember dreams in the morning, says Marsden, so it might be helpful to keep a notepad and pen or a recorder by your bed. “If you wake up in the middle of the night, you can quickly jot down or record your dream.”
One study in the Journal of Creative Behavior found that keeping a daily dream journal increases some aspects of creativity because it helps us let go of stereotypical thinking. “There does seem to be some scientific evidence that keeping a dream journal will help boost your creativity,” Marsden adds.
Prime Your Brain
Reading before sleep is another way to tap into your creativity before bed. Scientists found that learning something new right before sleep increases memory and may prime your brain to be more creative, says Marsden. “Similarly, thinking about a challenging issue or problem could also prime creativity.”
Filling your brain with new ideas or inspiration gives your mind fodder for working while you’re asleep and increases the amount of information you’re likely to recall, according to a study in the journal PLOS ONE. If you’re focused on solving a particular problem, think about the question just before dropping off and let your brain work on it while sleeping.