To boost your creativity, make microsiestes

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Pour résoudre des problèmes, pensez à somnoler.

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Posted on Dec 9, 2021 2021 at 12:21

On the border between wakefulness and sleep, there is a gray area where our consciousness fluctuates, our reactivity to the environment decreases, and reality gradually begins to distort, giving way to dreamlike images. Brief and evanescent, this phase of falling asleep remains a mystery.

However, this period of transition between two “worlds” has long fascinated artists, scientists and inventors, who say they found the inspiration for their discoveries there. This is for example the case of the chemist August Kékulé who tells how the dream of a snake biting its tail would have revealed to him the ring structure of the benzene molecule.

Thomas Edison, the man with a thousand patents, or even the surrealist Salvador Dali were so convinced that falling asleep was conducive to creativity that they had developed a method to capture these moments of dazzling.

Their secret was simple: they just took naps while holding an object in their hands. The object fell loudly to the ground as their muscles relaxed, waking them in time to notice the illuminations they had received while dozing. Is capturing creative ideas while falling asleep the prerogative of geniuses or is it accessible to all?

Doze off to better solve problems

To find out if a muse is hiding on the doorstep of sleep, our idea was to compare the ability of volunteers to solve a problem after sleeping versus after staying awake. Our hypothesis was that people who dozed off would be more likely to have a “Eureka!” ” than the others.

But how exactly do we objectively measure the occurrence of creative enlightenment in the laboratory? We chose to use a task already known in the scientific literature called number reduction task (NRT). In this task, participants must solve several hundred arithmetic mini-problems as quickly as possible using two predefined rules.

Finding the solution is simple – it is enough to proceed in stages – but the process is long and tedious. The beauty of NRT is that the problems are structured in such a way that a hidden trick can skip the majority of the steps and thus find the solution to any new problem much faster and without effort.

An experiment

Obviously, the participants do not know the existence of this hidden trick. But when by chance they discover it, then we observe a sudden and drastic decrease in the time of resolution of the problems and we can then know exactly when the Eureka occurred.

As part of this experience, 103 volunteers came to the Pitié-Salpêtrière sleep pathology service in London. They were first faced with 60 mini-problems. A small portion of them (16%) discovered the hidden trick at this point and were excluded from the rest of the scans. Next, participants were invited to take a 20-minute break, during which they were comfortably seated in a chair, eyes closed and in complete darkness. Such conditions are conducive to falling asleep.

However, we didn't just want people to fall asleep, we wanted them to stay in this transitional phase between wakefulness and sleep so that we could specifically identify the role of this period on creativity. However, the phase of falling asleep is fleeting and the switch to more consolidated sleep is unpredictable, which makes it almost impossible to anticipate when to wake the participants.

Hold a bottle in your hand

To solve this difficulty, we took the example of Edison and Dali: during the break, the participants held a plastic bottle in their hand, so that the falling object woke them up before they fell asleep too deeply. Finally, after this break, the volunteers were working on 330 new issues, which took them a little over an hour.

Throughout the experiment, the volunteers were equipped with sensors, placed on the head, chin and around the eyes to measure their brain, eye and muscle activity.

From the electrical signals measured by these sensors, we could know the state of vigilance of the participants during the break and thus divide them into three groups, namely: those who had remained awake 100% of the time, those who had nodded (presence only from the first phase of sleep called N1, which roughly corresponds to falling asleep) and those who had slept more deeply and reached the second phase of sleep (N2).

Trace of sleep of a participant who dozed off (N1);  he wakes up after dropping the bottle.  Brain activity is in black, eye movements in blue, and muscle tone in green.

Trace of sleep of a participant who dozed off (N1); he wakes up after dropping the bottle. Brain activity is in black, eye movements in blue, and muscle tone in green.DR

So were Edison and Dali right and does staying at the gates of sleep provide direct access to our creative minds? We found that 83% of participants who had dozed off (group N1) discovered the hidden rule compared to only 31% of volunteers who stayed awake during the break.

This threefold multiplication of the Eureka! is all the more extraordinary as only one minute of N1 on average differentiated the two groups (all remained awake the rest of the time). On the other hand, this gain in creativity disappeared in the volunteers who had reached N2 (only 14% found the trick). It would therefore seem that there is an area conducive to creativity during the fall asleep phase: to access it, you have to fall asleep easily, but not too deeply.

You can try at home

Did Edison's method capture this fleeting moment? Analysis of the brain recordings shows a slowdown in brain activity (a marker of falling asleep) just before the bottle was released. Because the noise emitted by the bottle when it fell woke the participants 100% of the time, it prevented the participants from going into N2 (which, let us remember, canceled out the creativity effect), partly confirming the method of Edison.

However, we also observed that participants sometimes let go of the bottle even before the onset of L1, early releases which indicate that this technique is sensitive to early signs of drowsiness and therefore could sometimes prevent reaching the creative zone. In summary, then, taking a creative nap with an object in your hand is effective in staying in the creative zone provided you have successfully entered it.

If you want to try this method at home, you need to find something that is light (otherwise, beware of cramps), slippery, and of a diameter large enough to prevent unwanted catching up (a teaspoon won't do). Obviously, the object has to make a noise when falling to wake you up before you fall asleep completely. Once you've found your item, all you have to do is take a nap with it!

Creative nap

As you wake up from your creative nap, you'll probably have to wait before your muse whispers the solution to your problem. Indeed, unlike anecdotes relating a Eureka upon waking up, our participants discovered the hidden trick later, after having been confronted with 94 new problems on average.

The mechanisms by which falling asleep made it possible to induce an Eureka in the context of our experience therefore remain mysterious. One thing is certain, you will now have a ready-made excuse to doze off in a meeting!

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Delphine Oudiette, Inserm; Célia Lacaux, Sorbonne University and Thomas Andrillon, Inserm

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