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A speedy nap can give a sudden boost to your creativity

Published: 11th April, 2022 at 09:00
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Results from a recent study suggest that a short nap is a great way to solve creative problems.

What did Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali have in common? Other than their huge contributions to society, the two also shared a soft spot for a particular napping technique.

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Convinced of the influence on creativity that a good nap could have, both would use naps to spur on ideas. They would fall asleep holding an object. When they started to fall asleep, the object would fall to the ground, waking them up and allowing them to note down their sleep-induced ideas.

So, the big question is: can a short nap fill you with creativity or does this only work for world-famous scientists and artists? A 2021 study answered the question, supporting the link between naps and creativity.

In this study, a team of researchers from the Institute du Cerveau tested 103 participants on their ability to complete a task. This challenge (known as the Number Reduction Task) has a hidden shortcut that allowed the volunteers to complete it quickly.

Just 16 per cent of the group were able to find the shortcut to the task initially and were then taken out of the task. The rest of the group were then sent for a 20-minute break in a dark room with their eyes closed.

© Paul Bradbury
Napping for a short while improves creative thinking, researchers at the Institute du Cerveau have found. © Paul Bradbury

These conditions aimed to send people to sleep. Because the researchers wanted to target the early stages of sleep (the optimal point for creativity), they followed the techniques of Edison and Dali, giving the participants a cup of water to hold.

At the end of the break, participants were asked to work on the same tasks. 83 per cent of participants who dozed off in the early stage of sleep found the hidden rule compared to only 31 per cent who stayed awake.

This result is especially surprising as the group who napped were, on average, asleep for just one minute. However, this boost in creativity did disappear for those who slept too long and entered the next stage of sleep.

"We don't really know why this boosts creativity. The first stage of sleep is a hybrid state between wake and sleep, potentially providing the best of the two worlds for creativity. It is associated with rich, spontaneous, dream-like experiences (called hypnagogia) which could be what is causing the idea generation." says Delphine Oudiette, one of the authors of the study.

Not only is a very short nap good for improving your creative thinking, but following Edison’s falling item trick is actually a great way of doing it. This stops you sleeping too long and losing the effect.

"When people are confronted by a problem that they have difficulty in solving, or when in need of creative inspiration, they can attempt to do a 'creative micro-nap' using Edison's technique.
"To do so, they should lie down, eyes closed, on an arm chair while holding an object in hand; the hand should be outside of the arm rest so the object can fall." says Oudiette.

It is worth noting that the item dropping technique isn’t going to work every time. The researchers would occasionally witness participants dropping the cup before the first sleep stage, alerting them before they had fully fallen asleep.

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Authors

Alex is a staff writer at BBC Science Focus. He has worked in technology and science journalism since graduating in 2018 with an interest in consumer tech, robotics, AI and future technology.

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