Many great ideas have their origins in sleep. For those who hope to consistently produce great ideas, this is a disheartening thought. Dreams are notoriously elusive; hard to recall, harder to govern. When dreams do bear fruit, however, the effects can be miraculous, elucidating ideas that had confounded us when awake. 

REM Sleep and Creativity

IndustryofUs (IoU) explores this phenomenon in their article “Why We should Sleep on it”. When Mendeleev had exhausted every waking avenue in his search for a periodic table, a dream revealed it to him in near-perfect order. IoU accords this effect to REM sleep, the most mentally active of the various stages. At this stage, our minds draw connections between apparently disconnected concepts. Often this produces gibberish, but occasionally it produces revelations inaccessible to our more logical, waking thought patterns. 

IoU conducted a small experiment on this subject, encouraging a team to solve anagrams before and after a period of sleep. While only some participants reported eureka moments like Mendeleev, almost all observed a change in their thought processes, “more random, creative and less logical and systematic”.

Survey results

IoU asked 100 subjects from the UK, US, and AUS when they consider themselves to be most creative:

  • 75% of answers were in proximity to sleep. 
  • 59% were in the moments after waking, either in the morning or the middle of the night. 
  • 16% in the process of falling asleep, the semi-lucid state of hypnagogia.

While this is a small sample size, the takeaway is concerning: traditional work days seem as far removed as possible from either of these creative periods. 

Conclusion

These findings point to the importance of sleep in the development and refinement of ideas. Sleep is not an interruption, but a part of the problem-solving process, and those hoping to innovate should always be willing to sleep on a troublesome idea.