Can you sleep your way to better creativity? Potentially. Tap into the right side of your brain and let your dreams do the work for you with these tips.
1. “Sleep on it” works for tough problems.
Scientists have found that an “incubation period” can help in solving difficult problems when the brain does not focus on the problem. When the incubation period includes some sleep time, people are more likely to make connections among disparate ideas and facts.
For many difficult problems, the solution may come after periods of focus and periods of relaxation and mind-wandering. This mental wandering is important because your mind goes down many paths, most of which are unproductive but some of which could lead to insight or a solution. The waking brain, when faced with a tough problem, may be too focused to get to a solution that requires a circuitous route.
Reminding yourself of the specific problem you want to solve before you go to bed may trigger your unconscious mind to work on it during sleep. A 1993 Harvard study found that when they asked themselves a question before bed, half of participants dreamt about the issue, and a quarter found a solution in their dreams.
2. Pay attention to your dreams.
Whether you keep a paper notebook by your bed or use a smartphone app, keeping track of your dreams may help you find inspiration for all sorts of creative projects.
Lucid dreaming enables you to explore ideas during a dream and play out different plot points. There are smartphone apps that help you become better at lucid dreaming. Ask yourself during the day if you’re dreaming to get your brain in the habit of checking in on your dream state while you’re asleep.
3. Read something inspiring before bed.
It can be fiction or nonfiction. Anything that inspires your mind and suggests new information can prime you for creative thinking fresh upon waking. Your brain will synthesize the information as you sleep.
4. Find a sleep routine that works for you.
It may sound counterintuitive, but experts suggest scheduling your creative activities for the opposite time of day as when you are most productive. Creative thinking flows more easily when you’re tired, because your brain is prone to wander and get distracted by the tangential thoughts that many creatives see as critical to the creative process. If you are a morning lark, get creative in the evening, and if you are a night owl, create in the morning.
If you find yourself lying in bed for more than 15 minutes, get up and leave the bedroom. You want to treat your bedroom as an environment strictly for sleep, so go into another room and do something restfully productive, such as writing or sketching in a notebook. The creative activity will tire your brain, without the risk of blue light from a television or computer making you feel more awake.
While it’s best to not accumulate sleep debt, if you find yourself needing a creative jolt, you might try waking yourself up 30 minutes earlier than usual, triggering yourself to interrupt your sleep cycle. You might feel groggy as a result, but also more creative.
5. Experiment with naptime.
If REM is a key enabler in the creative process, that might explain why creative people don’t so often mention the period following a brief daytime nap as a fertile time. While naps can be useful for improving mental performance, the kind of mental energy gained after a power nap is more geared toward cranking things out rather than developing new ideas and concepts.
During a power nap, you only experience light sleep. However, people who take longer daytime naps may experience REM sleep, and likewise test better at creativity after awakening than those who do not. A 2010 study found that deep sleep (which can also be reached during longer naps) can improve idea generation in volume and originality.
6. Allow yourself to daydream.
Creators often talk of inspiration coming during a waking period similar to a dream and daydreams have long been connected with new ideas, syntheses of existing ideas, or applying existing ideas in new ways.
Daydreaming isn’t dreaming the way dreams happen during sleep. The mind is unfocused and wanders. This may be slightly more likely when one is tired, although it can happen any time during the day. One reason we advocate quality sleep is so that we can be alert during our waking hours, and that is often interpreted as sharp concentration. But humans benefit from daydreaming, too, as creativity is often spurred during these times.
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