Creativity and Sleep…

October 2, 2008 — Leave a comment

“Waste not life,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of American entrepreneurs. “In the grave will be sleeping enough.”

Centuries later, the attitude toward sleep in America — and in American business, in particular — has scarcely changed. Bumper stickers offer an updated version of Franklin’s dictum: “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”

But now, a Harvard sleep researcher finds that if you sleep on new ideas and information, you’re 33% more likely to make connections between distantly related points.

Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as “just connecting things.” Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface.

While traditional stories about sleep and creativity emphasize vivid dreams hastily transcribed upon waking, recent research highlights the importance of letting ideas marinate and percolate.

Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem.

Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in “A Popular History of American Invention” in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties.

Spear-wielding savages make for compelling stories, but creative insights directly induced by dreams are rare. In general, people are unaware of sleep’s effects on their performance.

Dr. Ellenbogen’s research at Harvard indicates that if an incubation period includes sleep, people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas, and yet, as he puts it, these performance enhancements exist “completely beneath the radar screen.”

In other words, people are more creative after sleep, but they don’t know it.

“It’s more that sleep brings a change of approach,” explains Mark Holmes, an art director at Pixar Animation Studios who worked on the film “Wall-E.” “You can get tunnel vision when you’re hammering away at a problem. You keep going down this same path, again and again, just tweaking, making incremental changes at best. ” He continues: “Sleep erases that. It resets you. You wake up and realize — wait a minute! — there is another way to do this.”

Read the entire New York Times article HERE.

This post was going to be part of Creative Chaos hosted by Ragamuffin Soul (but he’s on a tehnology fast).

HT: The New York Times via Lifehacker


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Pat Callahan

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I'm a picker. I'm a grinner. I'm a lover. And I'm a sinner. I make my music in the sun.

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