My dear friends, to go to sleep is to enter a world that is really like our own, and entirely unlike it too. We can board a plane that’s really a car that will fly to Amsterdam, except it’s the moon and your grandma is there until she’s your granddad. Dreams, can be prosaic or repetitive (exactly how many times can you show up at the exact same party. In your Fred Flintstones underwear before you remember to put something on?) But whatever they are they remain mysterious. The sleeping brain runs it’s absurdist-movie loop over and over through the entire night, however, always taking care to conceal what’s behind it, right?
No longer, Neuroscientists have a growing arsenal of tools- MRIs, PET scan, high-destiny EEGs-to watch the nocturnal brain at work and see how it ticks throughout the entire sleep cycle. To the surprise and the delight of researchers, that’s finally helping explain one of the mind’s most ineffable qualities: which is creativity.
We’ve all slept on some sort of problem before, and had it sort itself out by the following morning, however, that’s only a small part of what the brain on nighttime autopilot can really do. Mr. Paul McCartney famously said that he came up with the Melanie for yesterday in one of his dreams; Mr. Elias Howe, the inventor of the sewing machine, is said to have solved the problem of the machine’s needle when he dreamed of an attack by warriors that were carrying spears with holes in the tips. Dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state, says Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, who is the author of The Committee of Sleep. “In the Sleep State, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.”
The hunt for the source of human creativity has been going on for as long as humans have been creating. It drives all of us to wonder how celebrated inventors came up with Amazing Ideas that became the next big thing. It also, drives all of us to wonder how we find our own next brainstorm when we really need it. However, it’s no secret that sleep can be a deep well of good ideas-what we are learning now is how to actually dip into it.
The very act of sleeping, as researchers have long known, is a lot more complicated than just conking out for the night. There are two principal cycles of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement. (NREM), and they alternate. NREM sleep stars as a light doze-sleep at no greater than snorkeling depth-and steadily progresses to deeper levels at which the muscles relax, and the heart rate and respiration slow, and body temperature drops.
REM sleep usually begins about 90 minutes after the start of the first in NREM cycle and it is indeed the true blue beautiful ocean of sleep. Heart rate and respiration acceleration, and brain activity as measured by electroencephalograms(EEGs) increases too-a function of dreaming. For this very reason, muscles become paralyzed, lest you act out the scenes unspooling in your head. Know these dreams in which you are trying to run away from sometimes but can’t seem to move your legs? And I have you to know that’s not your imagination.
Most REM sleep comes in the last 4 hours of your sleep, says associate psychology Professor Jessie Payne of the University of Notre Dame. “Dreams in the early, NREM phase can be kind of literal. It’s in the REM phase that you get all those crazy blinding errors.” Blinding errors, is one of those lovely scientific terms that actually means pretty much what they actually sound like. Your waking brain is always orderly, your sleeping brain is fragmented, and as with all broken things, the bits can get reassembled the wrong way, however, the wrong way suggests that there is just one way. And the genius of sleep is that it allows you to explore other, untried avenues.
In a frequently cited 2009 study, investigators at UCLA and the University of California, San Diego, recruited a group of volunteers and had all of them solve a type of word puzzle known as the remote association test (RAT). In a typical RAT question, the subjects are given three words and asked to determine a fourth word that links them all. The answer for the words “broken,” “clear” and “eye,” to give you an example, would be “glass.” Our volunteers had to take the test twice; between the two sessions, they were told to take a 40-minute nap.
Some of our volunteers, just rested in that interval, others dozed, and some tumbled into the depths of REM sleep. However, in round two of the test, participants who got a slug of REM improved 40%, while the other volunteers saw their scores go down. Sleep, it appeared, sharpened their brains’ ability to find links among the words.
In another study, in 2004 from the University of Lubeck in Germany approached the same idea in a more revealing fashion. The subjects were required to complete math problems that relied on algorithms, but hidden deep within the formulas was an elegant arithmetical shortcut. About 25% of the subject discovered it on their own. But that figure jumped to 59% when the volunteers were given a chance to receive 8 hours of sleep, and then come back for more.
If you have an idea about a simple solution, and it’s been working itself out in your head, you still tend to use the familiar one, says cognitive Neuroscientist Howard Nussbaum of the University of Chicago. When you sleep, the better answer has a chance to emerge.
The key to the brain’s ability to make such good use of downtime is something it shares with your computer: It’s like having a hard drive in your head. The capacity to run multiple programs at once. The aha moment you experience when you’ve have been trying to remember the name of a movie and three hours later it hits you is no accident. Conscious awareness is able to focus on only one thing at a time, says Barrett, however, problems go on getting processed under the radar.
Sleeping doubles down on this. The prefrontal cortex performs a motorcycle cop role, doing more than just keeping the brain focused on a conscious task. It also screens out thoughts that it decides you shouldn’t think of at all. The forbidding concept aren’t just things that are socially inappropriate however, those are on the list-but also those deem rationally inappropriate. In sleep, that brake on your imagination comes off, which indeed explains the German math study.
At the same time the prefrontal censor is dialing itself down, the brain’s visual centers in the occipital lobe at the back of the head, are dialing up. The hallucinogenic quality of dreams is a result of the visual centers’ mixing our images as well. That’s usually jest chaff, but not necessarily always. One Night in 1816, Mary Shelley dreamed of a man being assembled from bits beyond the grave-and went on to write the legendary novel Frankenstein.
Just as important as which regions of the brain are working is how they communicate. We think of the left hemisphere as the rational, mathematical regions and the right as the creative, more bohemian one, and that’s a very fair division. But a study that was conduct by neuroscientist Lisa Aziz-Zadeh of the University of Southern California found that the brain is not quite so bifurcated.
When architecture students undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans were asked to perform a visual-spatial task-arranging geometric shapes in their heads to see if they could be assembled into a triangle or a square-the right, artistic hemisphere carrying the load. When they were given a slightly more creative task-arranging a circle, a C and an 8 in various ways to form a face-the right hemisphere then called on the assistance of the left. The special regions that are active during the creative process largely depends on the kind of task that the person may be engaging in, Aziz-Zadeh says.
A 2008 study at the University of Rome found something very similar. With the help of EEGs, investigators tracked communication between hemispheres when the subjects were awake, in NREM sleep and in REM. In the waking and NREM states, information that was traveling mainly from left to right, consistent with the idea that the left brain controls the right. During REM sleep, however, there was no preferred decision. The right can come out of the Shadows.
Synapses-the cell-to-cell links that serve as the bits of the brain’s operating system also plays an important role. Each brain cell can link to more than just one, and it would seem that the more connections, that there are, the better, since that makes for a richer system. That’s indeed true, however, only up to a point. Too many connections can lead to chaotic free association rather then organized thought.
So the brain must periodically clear out the synaptic underbrush- analogous to running a repair-and-also cleaning programs on your computer to defray the hard drive, says psychologist William D.S.Killgore of Harvard Medical School. The hormone cortisol rises during REM, then helps form new and imaginative ideas from the data that survives the defray.
Cortisol is a stress hormone and tends to fracture memory. It has the same effect when you are asleep, and Payne believes this encourages the unbinding and rebinding of images that definitely can define dreams. The brain dislikes fragmentation, so it weaves narratives, she says. And that my friends, in turn, gives rise to novel thinking.
Dopamine is another ingredient in the brain’s secret creative sauce. Shelley Carson, who is a Harvard psychologist points out that Dopamine levels rise in pleasure centers of the brain both when we are dreaming and when we are being creative. This serves as a reward and reinforcement that keeps the dreams-and all the ideas flowing.
As with all other matters scientific, the question of causation remains. Are we all equally imaginative in our sleep, or do some people who are already creative in their waking hours retain that edge also at night? Much as it would be nice to think that sleep is a great democratize the fact is creative types may indeed have an advantage around the entire clock. David Watson who is a psychologist of the University of Notre Dame tracked 200 subjects over a three-month period, found that those who scored high on creativity scales when they were awake tended to remember their dreams a lot more.
One reason is that they simply have more vivid and interesting dreams Watson says. That’s linked to having an active fantasy life; the daytime behavior shades over into the night. This is a case of the rich becoming richer, however, that’s not to say the creative middle class can’t aspire to join that metaphorical 1%. The best strategy for remembering dreams is keeping a journal on your night table next to your bed, Watson says. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol is also a very good idea, since they scramble the NREM and REM cycle.
Barrett’s studies suggest that engaging in some type of pre-bedtime priming-contemplating a problem you’d like to solve-increases the likelihood that sleep will bring you some answers. Up to a third of the subject in one of her sample groups reported that priming had helped them find a solution that had eluded them during the whole day.
But, none of this guarantees that a good night’s sleep may be all you need to fuel creativity, however, that is no reason to not let better sleep tip the odds in our favor. We all have problems every day, and we all go to bed every night. And even if we don’t think of ourselves as being creative, our sleeping brain will however, sometimes prove otherwise.
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