Why Are We More Creative After Getting Some Sleep?

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One of the weirdest things about being alive is that in order to just survive, we humans need to spend about a quarter of our lives unconscious and hallucinating. And one of the weirdest things about our scientific knowledge is that we don’t know why we do a thing that we all do 8 hours a day. It’s insane! Like, you’d hope that if every human on earth spent 8 hours a day singing Abba even though a surprising portion of them didn’t even want to, we’d have a pretty good idea of why that happens. But sleep (and dreaming) remain this weird mystery that scientists are slowly trying to figure out by coming at it from many different angles at the same time — why do we do it, what is actually happening in our brains when it happens, and how do we benefit from it, for instance.

One of those angles is explored in a new study by Cardiff University researchers, led by Professor Penny Lewis. Lewis has a hypothesis that dreaming leads us to creative solutions to problems we are working on while awake. I was intrigued by this research not only because I think sleep and dreaming are weird, wonderful things, but also because I think creative problem-solving is weird and wonderful, too. I remember when I first started working as a creative copywriter, I was freelancing and super confused as to how to bill my clients. If I’m trying to come up with the perfect ad copy, I don’t necessarily just sit down and write for, say, two hours and send them a bill for that. I first would read up on everything I needed to know (what the product was, what the client wanted to say about it, who the target customer was, whether it was a billboard or an email or whatever). Then, I’d take a break. I’d go for a run, or play a video game, or something else that took my mind off the work. I found that when I would return to the problem, it would be way easier to knock it out of the park compared to if I had just spent that time staring at an empty Word document. But I couldn’t bill the client for the time I spent playing pinball, could I? Even if that’s when my brain was doing the heavy lifting in the background?

(The solution to that, I eventually realized, was to basically just bullshit like every other creative freelancer. You do your best to come up with a fair invoice and don’t stress about it too much.)

But I did notice that whatever creative solutions I could come up with after doing some unrelated activity paled in comparison to the solutions that came to me as I woke up the next day (if ever I had that much time to work on a project!). I wondered if other people had the same experience — it turns out, they do! And scientists like Professor Lewis are working on why.

Prior to this research, there was scientific debate as to whether creativity is boosted during REM or non-REM stages of sleep. Lewis’s hypothesis is that it’s both working together. She says that during non-REM sleep, our brains replay our memories and overlaps them to find common characteristics. For instance, you might remember visiting an amusement park that day, and also a few years ago, and as a child. Your brain focuses on the commonalities: a roller coaster; an overpriced hot dog; a log flume. That forms your idea of what an amusement park is, in general. Then your brain enters the REM stage, in which it replays memories that might have an unexpected, novel association to the other things: maybe swinging a bucket of water upside down connects to the loopty loop roller coaster in the way that things seem to “stick” to the bottom if it’s moving fast enough while going upside down, or maybe the spray of the log flume connects to…I don’t know, I can’t think of anything because I haven’t taken a nap to come up with a creative enough connection. But your brain is basically cycling through a bunch of memories to see what sticks, forming connections between things that weren’t there before. After about 90 minutes of all this, it starts over again with non-REM sleep.

Lewis acknowledges some problems with her hypothesis. For instance, she thinks that the hippocampus (the area of the brain that records long-term memories of events) “nudges” the neocortex (the part of the brain that records facts and ideas) into layering those common memories during non-REM. She doesn’t have the hard evidence that that’s what is happening, exactly, but she hopes to in future studies.

She also points to cases like a man who, do to a brain injury, can’t experience the normal amount of REM sleep but still manages to be creative, to the point that he makes puzzles for his local newspaper.

So it’s all still kind of messy, but I’m excited to see what she does next. She’s actually working with a computational neuroscientist to create an artificial intelligence that sleeps so they can see what it does. How cool is that? And yes, I do desperately want to make an electric sheep joke here but I cannot, sadly, because my friend Ed Yong already did that in an awesome article in the Atlantic where I learned about that. Go read that to learn more about this super weird research!


Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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