Struggling to regain your creative spark? We all lack inspiration from time to time, whether it’s due to holiday stress or an increasingly busy schedule. Tackling that redecorating project or planning your weekly meal prep is easier said than done, especially when so many other things command our attention. Fortunately, there’s an easy fix: Take a nap! But not just any kind of nap. Keep reading to find out how to harness your inner creative genius.
An Unconventional Way of Napping
Legend has it that whenever he was struggling with an invention, Thomas Edison took a short nap — but he did it a little differently than you might imagine: He held steel balls in his hands while resting in an armchair. As soon as his hands relaxed, the balls would clatter to the floor, waking him up. Painter Salvador Dalí reportedly did the same thing when he was in need of inspiration, only he used a heavy key.
Both creators believed that the transitional period between wake and sleep – which some people call the twilight zone – helped them solve creative problems. By waking up just before heavy sleep set in, they were able to harness their dreamlike mental state to uncover solutions.
That was the inspiration behind a recent study published in Science Advances, in which a team of French researchers tested out this trick to see if it really works.
Testing Out the Theory
To find out whether the twilight zone really boosts creativity, the researchers recruited 103 people who said they had no trouble falling asleep. Participants were given series of math problems with a specific set of rules. However, they weren’t told about a hidden rule that made it much easier to find the right answers.
In the first phase of the experiment, 16 participants discovered the hidden rule quickly. They were excluded from the next phase of the study, while the remaining 87 people took a 20-minute break.
During that break, participants sat down in comfy recliners with their eyes closed. They wore an electroencephalography helmet to measure electrical activity in different parts of the brain and held a plastic water bottle in their right hand. When the bottle fell, indicating they had fallen asleep, they had to tell researchers what was on their minds as soon as they came to.
Not all of the subjects nodded off during the break, but most of the ones who did reported having simple dreams or strange visions. For example, one participant reported seeing dancing numbers, while another had a vision of a hospital room with a horse. When the 20-minute break was up, all the participants went back to the math problems.
The result? Participants who slept a bit, waking up in the first phase of sleep, were nearly three times better at finding the hidden rule than those who didn’t fall asleep, or who dozed off but slept too deeply. While 83 percent of cat-nappers discovered the hidden rule, only 30 percent of the remaining participants found it.
“Our findings suggest there is a creative sweet spot during sleep onset,” study author Delphine Oudiette, a sleep researcher at the Paris Brain Institute, told Science in a news release. “It is a small window which can disappear if you wake up too early or sleep too deep.”
As for what you dream about during that window? It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a dancing horse or a flying pig. The research team didn’t see any connection between the content of the dreams and performance on the test.
How to Be More Creative, the Edison Way
The researchers cautioned that the creativity boost from a nap isn’t likely to come on immediately. (Most study participants had to complete the math problems many more times before they found the trick.) Still, the team was impressed by just how much impact a quick snooze had on performance.
So, the next time you need a jolt of creativity, try out Edison and Dalí’s napping method! Take a 10-minute nap in a quiet, dimly lit room, and put on a timer or hold a ball in your hand. Though you might not have a eureka moment immediately after your snooze, that extra bit of rest could help you get into the right frame of mind to find inspiration!