If you have ever felt challenged solving a problem, or struggled to come up with an idea, there is one piece of advice that many people would give:

Sleep on it

For hundreds of years, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs have told tales about how some of their best ideas came to them in their sleep, during their dreams.

After all, dreams happen when we sleep. And dreams sometimes exhibit some of the most creative, unexpected and original thoughts we ever have.

However, more recent scientific evidence has looked at whether there really is a link between sleep and problem solving, creativity and the development of new divergent ideas.

Testing the impact of sleep on creativity

One of the world’s foremost experts on sleep, Professor Matthew Walker, showed in 2004 research that by looking at a mathematical challenge before sleeping, the chances of discovering a novel solution to those challenges after sleep is more than doubled.

In the same year, other research showed that having 8 hours of sleep resulted in more than twice as many people discovering insights to solve cognitive task problems compared to just resting when awake. So sleep helps people solve problems the next day.

In a 2012 study, participants were tasked with solving a challenge while a specific odor (smell) was in the room. Unknown to them, when they then slept, the researchers either introduced the same odor to prompt their sleeping mind to remember the challenge, or a neutral /non-odor. The study showed that sleeping minds which were prompted to think of the challenge by smelling the same odor were more creative the next day and better able to solve the challenge. This implies that the brain really is able to work on challenges while we are asleep.

A 2019 study also showed that a short nap is sufficient to improve your ability to solve certain creative challenges, although it will not necessarily make you much more creative than before.

Ironically, there may even be a sleep “sweet spot” for solving problems. According to 2021 research, the twilight moment just between wakefulness and sleep may be especially powerful. In this study, researchers found that even 15 seconds of “nonrapid eye movement sleep stage 1” sleep were three times as likely to find a hidden rule to solve a series of mathematical challenges instantly, but this effect disappeared if participants reached deeper sleep. They tested this by having participants hold a small object in their hands which would make a sound when dropped when the participants dropped them while falling asleep, waking them up again. Allegedly, this was a process used by Thomas Edison to solve challenges.

This might imply that sometimes, it is relaxation and moving into an alpha brain state which facilitates the creative performance improvement.

A different study of construction workers in Korea also found there was no strong correlation between having a short nap during working hours and being more creative afterwards.

The importance of REM sleep

Much of the research seems to find that different cycles of sleep we go through during the night have different impacts on many physiological processes, including problem solving and creativity.

For example, there is apparently a difference in what the mind does during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep phases, and non-REM sleep which happens beforehand.

One summary of the research suggests that:

  • Non-REM sleep is where information we engaged with during the day is processed and formed into memories
  • REM sleep is where those new memories are compared and integrated into all of the previous knowledge and memories we have. This is also usually when we dream. This may form new novel associations between distant pieces of information, a vital component for new ideas

Other research from 2009 has also shown that REM sleep appears to be more important than non-REM sleep in solving creative challenges, like the Remote Associates Test, which is a popular measure of convergent thinking.

Additionally, research going all the way back to 1978 has shown that people who are deprived of REM sleep perform worse on divergent thinking tasks than those who only had non-REM sleep deprivation.

This would imply that REM sleep is important for not only our ability to associate new ideas and solve existing problems, but also form new original and divergently creative ideas.

Getting too little sleep

So we have seen that getting good quality sleep including REM phases appears to help improve creative performance.

But what impact does not having enough sleep have on creativity?

After all, research from the USA has shown that more than a third of adults are getting less than 7 hours of the recommended sleep every night, and up to 70 million Americans have chronic sleep disorders.

Well, other research has looked at the impact of not getting enough sleep on creative performance. And the results clearly show that lack of sleep can harm your creative ability.

A 1988 study showed that participants who went without sleep for 32 hours has significant impairment to their ability to perform on a divergent thinking test. Another 1992 study replicated these results.

This shows that less than one single night of poor sleep can significantly lower your creativity.

A 2014 study found that aspects of our brain involved in higher-order reasoning like the Prefrontal Cortex, part of the Executive Attention Network, are especially susceptible to sleep deprivation, and may explain some of the reasons why sleep deprivation may so strongly affect creativity.

So the science is conclusive. Sleep is vitally important for our creativity.

Not only can a good night’s sleep, especially if it includes REM sleep, help us solve problems and come up with novel creative ideas, a lack of sleep can significantly hurt this.

So make sure your pillow is comfortable, it might just help you get your next great idea.

Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.