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Research Just Pinpointed The Sleep Stage Linked To Creativity & "Eureka" Moments

Sarah Regan
December 19, 2021
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
By Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, and a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.
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Photo by Stocksy / Stocksy
December 19, 2021

Whether you're figuring out how to handle a specific problem or coming up with a new project, it's safe to say that creativity is a helpful thing to have. But how can we get more creative power? To find out, researchers recently studied how sleep influences creativity—and they may have pinpointed the exact moment creative insights tend to find us in the process. Here's a summary of the findings, just published in the journal Science Advances1.

Looking for a creativity sweet spot.

For this study, French researchers looked into whether creative bursts are common in sleep onset, also called stage 1 sleep. This is the stage when we're not quite asleep, not quite awake. We're drifting into slumber.

For this experiment, the team showed just over 100 participants math problems but didn't tell them about a hidden rule that would allow them to solve those problems virtually instantly.

Then, the participants who couldn't solve the problem were asked to take a 20-minute break. They sat in a dark room with their eyes closed, holding a water bottle. Why the water bottle? Because as soon as they started to drift off, the water bottle would fall to the floor and wake them up. All the while, the participant's brain activity was recorded.

The inspiration from the water bottle trick comes from Thomas Edison, and also Salvador Dalí, who both allegedly swore by napping with something in their hand in order to wake them up at the most opportune moment for creativity.

What the researchers found.

Based on the findings, it would appear Edison and Dalí were on to something. The study authors found that after people spent at least 15 seconds in stage 1 sleep, their chances of figuring out the hidden rule to the math problem tripled. Interestingly, this same effect was not seen if subjects didn't wake up and transitioned into deeper sleep stages.

This makes them suspect that the brain activity during stage 1 sleep is likely to start "igniting creative sparks."

"Our findings suggest that there is a creative sweet spot within the sleep-onset period, and hitting it requires individuals balancing falling asleep easily against falling asleep too deeply," the study authors write in the paper.

The takeaway.

We've long known that getting a good night's sleep helps your brain fire on all cylinders. With this new research, we're getting closer to pinpointing how sleep primes us for creativity in particular. Though you don't want to wake yourself from slumber every night to boost creativity (sleep is way too important for that!), trying out this trick when you're stumped on a problem one day could be a fun experiment.

And given that the creative burst happens only when you fall asleep easily, as opposed to too quickly, this research not only gives insight into creativity but offers one more reason to prioritize good sleep hygiene and a consistent sleep schedule.

Sarah Regan author page.
Sarah Regan
mbg Spirituality & Relationships Editor

Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.