Trying to solve a tough problem? Wracking your brain for a breakthrough? Looking for a eureka moment? Waiting for inspiration to strike?
Try taking a nap.
It’s a strategy that’s worked for a slew of creative geniuses, including Salvatore Dali, Albert Einstein, and other luminaries.
In fact, Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb, phonograph, and the first motion picture device, was famous for his unconventional sleeping ways. He was known to take short micro naps while holding a metal object. As he started to doze, his grip would loosen and the object would inevitably clatter to the floor, causing Edison to wake before he got too far into a sleep phase. During these semi-lucid moments between sleep and wakefulness, Edison was said to have important creative breakthroughs.
How to nap for creativity
Napping can give you a bevy of benefits, both mental and physical. But when it comes to boosting creativity, the timing of your nap is everything.
In a study that focused on creativity and sleep stages, researchers found that participants who spent at least 15 seconds in the transitional stage of N1 sleep, a phase of sleep that lasts less than 10 minutes and occurs as you drift from consciousness to unconsciousness, were three times more likely than those who stayed awake to discover a hidden rule allowing them to almost instantly solve a math equation. Meanwhile, those who were allowed to segue into N2 sleep (considered to be a fully asleep sleep state) were the least likely to find the hidden rule.
“Stage 1 [N1] sleep is a state somewhat between awake and fully asleep. It's often considered ‘quiet wake’ or ‘the twilight zone’ by sleep scientists, and usually this stage takes up about 5% of sleep at night because it mostly serves as a transition from wake to sleep,” explains Jade Wu, Ph.D., a sleep psychologist and author of “Hello Sleep.” “The brain activity during this state is somewhat similar to what happens during meditation. It's possible that this meditative half-sleep state is good for creativity because it allows the brain to freely associate in a relaxed state and incubate information more efficiently than when we're awake and distracted.”
But what happens when you drift into the later stages of sleep? Is creativity sacrificed?
In a study from 2009, subjects performed an associative word task in the morning. They were asked to take a nap or sit quietly for a period in the afternoon, then were given the same word test later in the day. All three groups showed improvement in performing the word test later in the day versus the morning, indicating that taking a break from a problem — whether you sleep on it or not — can help elucidate a solution.
The researchers then “primed” the subjects with words before either napping or resting quietly and found that those who napped into REM sleep — the fourth and final sleep stage, which generally occurs about 90 minutes after drifting off — performed better on the word association tests than those who quietly rested or had non-REM sleep.
“The interesting part is that the participants didn't know they were being primed pre-nap! They just thought they were doing another task,” said Wu. “Their brains had to make the leap and creatively pull from those clues without being instructed. That's exactly what REM sleep does... it's your brain putting together stimuli and ideas that may not be related to each other at all, just to try them out. What this means practically is that naps can be helpful for creativity, whether you remain in stage 1 or eventually get into REM.”
Harnessing the creative power of a nap
How can you optimize the creativity you’ll get from a nap?
For starters, Wu recommends that you do some prep work pre-nap. She suggests mulling over an idea or problem before you nap and jotting down ideas, information, and insights that come to mind.
“You can't just count on napping to give you creativity for free,” Wu says. “In all of these studies, it was doing some type of thinking or problem-solving BEFORE the nap that primed the creative improvement after the nap. The nap allows your brain to better synthesize ideas and information; it doesn't magically produce creative outputs out of thin air.”
Next, aim to keep the nap short by setting a timer for 20 to 30 minutes. Yes, longer naps that incorporate REM sleep can help get the creative juices flowing, but you can’t really control your sleep stages. By keeping the naps brief, you’re more likely to stay in that creativity-boosting, light, twilight zone sleep while staying away from REM territory. What’s more, longer naps or later naps that occur after the early afternoon have the potential of interfering with your nighttime sleep. If you do want to complete a full sleep cycle, aim for no more than 90 minutes.
Find a comfortable, quiet place to tune out for a while, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself to fall asleep, says Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at University of Utah Health. “The best way to nap is to not try too hard,” she advises. “I recommend entering the nap with an intention to rest, rather than telling yourself to fall asleep. It’s possible you could fall into a light sleep even if you don’t feel like you fell asleep at all.”
Lastly, once you awaken from the nap and feel ready to, return to the problem at hand and jot down whatever jumps out at you. Baron does caution that you should not do this in bed, regardless of how inspired you feel: Your bed should be reserved for sleep and sex, only, not work processes.
“You might not be aware that your brain has made creative progress — there's not necessarily an obvious eureka moment when you wake up — but there's probably something in your brain that wasn't there before,” notes Wu. “It's an iterative process!”
Wondering what to do if you sleep pretty well at night and don’t feel like you need a nap, but you could still use a creative jolt? Try meditating.
“You'll likely get into a stage 1 sleep if you truly put away distractions and allow your body and mind to wind down for even a few minutes,” Wu says. “Research has demonstrated the creative benefits of not just sleep, but also rest and meditation.”