Really?: The Claim: Sleep Inspires Creative
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
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