How Sleeping And Afternoon Naps Make You More Creative

H.P Lovecraft, Charlotte Brontë, and Robert Louis Stephenson are some of the authors who have had inspiration strike in the dead of night. And it is not just writers. Einstein, Christopher Nolan, and John Lennon all also credit dreams with insights into their creative projects.

But why are dreams so creative? Sleep and dreams are some of the most researched aspects of neuroscience and psychology, but still some of the least understood. The ideas behind dreams and creativity come from the function of sleep in memory and the fact that, while we are asleep, our brains are free from the usual sensations and can, frankly, go crazy.

Dreams Make You More Creative

This ‘putting two and two together’ is known as relational memory, and is the bedrock of all creativity, whether it comes to you in dreams or when you are awake. Figuring out relationships between what might seem two disparate pieces of information or knowledge is how people come up with creative ideas. Dreaming is just a particularly efficient way for this to happen, and therefore when major creative breakthroughs can be sought.

As I said, Shelley isn’t alone in being a writer who dreamed of their creations. More recent books that have been inspired by dreams are Stephen King’s Misery and the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyer. Meyer dreamt of a girl and a vampire boy lying in a night time meadow and talking about how their love could never be. They knew that they were in love, but the boy also knew that he had incredible urges to kill the girl. Meyer’s creativity turned this simple dream into 17 million copies of the Twilight series, along with the big-budget films.

King fell asleep on a plane and started to dream of an author and an obsessed fan. So taken by the story was King, that he sat down at the airport on landing and poured out the first 50 pages of the book right there.

Science backs up King and Meyer. A number of recent studies have found that REM sleep, when we are dreaming, is integral to creativity. In one study from Harvard Medical School, that probably didn’t make the researchers very popular, subjects were woken at different periods of the sleep cycle. Some were woken in the deep sleep phase, when the brain is resting and no dreams are taking place, whereas others were woken during REM sleep when they were dreaming. They then, in this groggy state, had to take a number of creativity tests. The dreamers had a 32% advantage in the tests over the deep sleepers. The researchers in this study suggested that REM sleep makes the brain more flexible and open to newer ways of thinking.

Another study from the University of California found that, as long as REM sleep was involved, you are even more creative after a nap. The researchers looked at how well the participants scored on a creativity test after taking either a long nap that involved some REM sleep, during which they dreamt, or a shorter nap when they didn’t have time to enter a REM phase of sleep (usually about an hour after you fall asleep). Again, the dreamers performed significantly better on the creativity tests than the people who didn’t get to the REM portion of their nap.

Authors are not the only ones that use their dreams for creative inspiration. When ill in Rome working on what must be his biggest hit to date, Piranha II, James Cameron dreamt of a terrifying robot emerging from a fire to attack a woman. Thus Terminator was born.

A possibly apocryphal story about Einstein has his journey to relativity started by a dream. When he was a child, Einstein supposedly dreamed of a field of cows surrounded by an electric fence. The cows were near Einstein, and the farmer was over the other side of the field. For some reason (maybe the farmer feared a cow attack), he switched on the electric fence. Einstein watched as all of the cows immediately jumped backward. Dream Einstein went to tell this to the farmer, but the farmer disagreed – from his perspective the cows had jumped back one by one. Einstein would spend the rest of his career dealing with how one event can look different from two perspectives. And he spent the rest of his life with a fear of cows.

If you look over other famous examples of inspiring a dreams, a common occurrence is that the person was already thinking over their problems. Mary Shelley had spent her entire Swiss holidays talking about horror stories, and desperately wanted to come up with one herself. Add to that the talk that night of life and death, and how to bring life to the dead, and her mind was primed to bring such a monster to life. She should have just gone skiing.

Conscious thinking about a problem, or triggering, is paramount if you want to dream of something specific during the night.

A great example of this thought process is the old wives tale of ‘put a piece of wedding cake under your pillow, and you will dream of your future spouse’. The cake, unless it is really good cake, is unlikely to be sending thoughts into your brain. Instead, you are consciously thinking about your future just before bed, and therefore are more likely to end up dreaming about it.

One person who was obviously triggering his dreams with his conscious work was Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine. Howe was a nineteenth century American inventor who wanted to relieve people of the monotonous and time-consuming task of constantly sewing up their own clothes whenever they were ripped. His idea for a machine that sewed was great, except for one thing – he couldn’t get the damn thing to work.

Significantly stressed by this problem, his sewing machine started to enter his dreams. One night he dreamt that, unless he could fix his sewing machine, a horde of hungry cannibals was going to kill and eat him. He worked on the design in his dream, but couldn’t solve the problem. The cannibals then started to stab him with their spears. As they did, he noticed a small hole in the end of each spear as they were going in and out of him. He realised that this eye at the point was the answer to his problems. He awoke, sprang out of bed at 4 am, and went downstairs to start on his design.

So if you want to dream of something specifically, try to make sure that it is what you are thinking about just before you nod off. This won’t always work, and as you might not even remember if it does, but you could find that this is a great way to overcome a creative blockage as your brain goes to town on the issue overnight.

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