By Adrian Sparrow
What if you could get a boost of creativity and inspiration and feel refreshed and energized in under 30 minutes? Many great thinkers including Salvador Dalí and Thomas Edison have taken advantage of a technique that everybody can try at home, using a skill everyone knows: napping – with a twist.
Stages of the Sleep Cycle
We go through multiple stages of sleep every night, across multiple cycles. The first stage that Dalí and Edison take advantage of, non-REM sleep, has four stages. According to John Hopkins Medicine, “The first stage comes between being awake and falling asleep. The second is light sleep, when heart rate and breathing regulate and body temperature drops. The third and fourth stages are deep sleep.”
Afterward, the brain slips into REM sleep. As we dream, we become temporarily paralyzed, which is the body’s way of stopping itself from acting out our dreams. The brain works during REM to process and consolidate memories. After REM, the brain cycles back through NREM and REM, spending less and less time in the deepest stages of NREM.
The hazy state between consciousness and sleep is called hypnagogia. In this first stage, the relaxed mind can process whatever problem you’re trying to solve but not yet consolidate the memory. Hopkins’ article continues, “Though REM sleep was previously believed to be the most important sleep phase for learning and memory, newer data suggests that non-REM sleep is more important for these tasks, as well as being the more restful and restorative phase of sleep.”
The Key to the Creative Sweet Spot
Salvador Dalí and Thomas Edison wanted to take advantage of the first stage of sleep (even though Edison believed that sleep was a waste of time, claiming he never slept more than 4 hours a night). Edison napped while holding a ball in each hand. As he fell asleep, the balls would drop and wake him before he entered REM sleep. Dalí used a key over a metal plate that would rattle when the key fell.
A study was conducted to replicate their findings:
“Inspired by Edison, Delphine Oudiette of the Paris Brain Institute and her colleagues presented 103 participants with mathematical problems that had a hidden rule that allowed them to be solved much faster. The 16 people who cracked the clue right away were then excluded from the study. The rest were given a 20-minute break period and asked to relax in a reclined position while holding a drinking glass in their right hand. If it fell, they were then asked to report what they had been thinking prior to letting go.” (source)
After their break, participants were presented with the math problems again. Those who successfully dozed into N1 (the first stage of NREM) were three times more likely to find the hidden rule than those who stayed awake, and 6 times more likely than those who had fallen into the deeper N2 stage of sleep.
A Refreshed Mind
“The new results suggest there is a creative sleep sweet spot during which individuals are asleep enough to access otherwise inaccessible elements but not so far gone that the material is lost,” says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California who wasn’t involved in the study.
Since measuring creativity is a subjective task, the study’s outcomes could simply be caused by participants having a relaxing time frame to doze, refresh their minds, and solve problems afterward more easily. Whether through a refreshed mind or unlocking a deeper level of creativity, Dali’s surreal paintings, Edison’s inventions, and the results of Oudiette’s study suggest that hypnagogia is the “creative sleep sweet spot .”
To try this technique at home, do some creative problem solving and nap while holding an object in your hand. Even if you don’t fall asleep, the mere act of closing your eyes and resting can help lessen fatigue. After all, you’re only focusing on getting to the first stage of NREM, when the body is still settling down, but the mind is open to endless possibilities.