That moment when you’re nodding off is a sweet spot for creativity


Fluid Interfaces group, MIT Media Lab

Fluid Interfaces group, MIT Media Lab

By Anne Trafton 

Feeling stuck on a problem that seems unsolvable? You may come up with a creative solution after a short nap — very short, according to a new study from MIT and Harvard Medical School researchers.

During the phase when you’re drifting between sleep and waking, a state known as sleep onset, the creative mind is particularly fertile, the researchers showed. They also demonstrated, for the first time, that when people are prompted to dream about a particular topic during that sleep phase, they perform much more creatively when later asked to perform three creativity tasks around that topic.

“When you are prompted to dream about a topic during sleep onset, you can have dream experiences that you can later use for these creative tasks,” says Kathleen Esfahany, an MIT senior and one of the lead authors of the study.

People who received this prompting, known as “targeted dream incubation,” generated more creative stories than people who napped without a specific prompt or people who stayed awake. The findings suggest that during this dream state, the brain makes more wide-ranging connections between disparate concepts, providing a boost in creativity, the researchers say.

“If you access this brain state, you can be more creative in your waking life,” says Adam Haar Horowitz, a postdoc in the MIT Media Lab and a lead author of the study, which appears today in Scientific Reports.

Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Pattie Maes, a professor in MIT’s Media Lab, are the principal investigators who led this study. Tomás Vega Gálvez, a former MIT graduate student in Maes’ research group, is also an author.

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