Really?: The Claim: Sleep Inspires Creative Thinking

November 9, 2004

By ANAHAD O'CONNOR

THE FACTS History suggests that a burst of creative inspiration, or even the solution to a baffling problem, can spring from the unconscious work of slumber.

Dmitri Mendeleev credited his discovery of the periodic table to a dream that showed him where to place the elements. Friedrich August Kekule discerned the ring shape of benzene in a somnolent vision of a snake biting its tail. While these might seem like exceptional cases, research confirms that a good night's sleep can open the door to insight.

In a study published in Nature this year, German researchers trained several groups of students to perform a memory task. Each student learned two rules for converting a string of eight numbers into a new string. A third, hidden rule would have reduced the steps in the calculation, allowing the students to solve the problem immediately. The groups were tested once after training and then again eight hours later.

Sixty percent of the students allowed to sleep in the interval figured out the hidden rule. Only 22 percent of those who stayed awake - some through the night, others through the day - discovered it.

Another group that slept for eight hours without being trained beforehand never figured the rule out, indicating that sleep helped only if the subjects formed memories of the task first. The control conditions also helped rule out the possibility that sleep deprivation or circadian rhythm accounted for the findings. New memories, the findings suggest, are manipulated during sleep in a way that stimulates insight, which then seeps into consciousness. How this happens, or which brain regions are involved, is not clear. Scientists know that explicit memory tasks are usually associated with deep stages of sleep. But anecdotal evidence suggests that insight is gleaned from dreams, which occur in the rapid eye movement, or REM, stage of sleep.

Whatever the mechanisms behind creative slumber, if a crucial exam is imminent, or a big presentation looming, it is probably a good idea to sleep on it.

THE BOTTOM LINE Sleep can stimulate insight and creativity.