On December 8, scientists reported in the journal Science Advances that people who recently had a light sleep later showed problem-solving power. The results of this study can help decipher the fleeting moments of the beginning of sleep and even show ways to enhance creativity.
It is well known that Thomas Edison, the creative inventor and nap lover, is looking for these twilight moments. He is said to have fallen asleep on a chair while holding two metal spheres over metal trays. When he fell into a deep sleep, the balls fell out of his hands. The sound of balls hitting metal trays woke him up, and he could save his innovative ideas before they were lost in the depths of his sleep.
Delphine Odiette, a neuroscientist at the Paris Institute of the Brain, and colleagues were inspired by Edinson’s approach to fostering creativity. He and his colleagues invited 103 healthy people to their lab to solve a difficult numerical problem. Candidates were asked to turn a string of numbers into a smaller sequence using two simple rules. What they did not tell the volunteers was that there was a simple trick: the second number in the sequence was always the final and correct answer. This trick greatly shortened the problem time when it was discovered.
After 60 attempts at a computer, volunteers were rewarded with a 20-minute break in a quiet, dark room. Volunteers who lay down and held an Edison “alarm clock” (a light drink bottle in one hand) were told they could close their eyes and fall asleep if they wished. All this time, the electrodes were recording their brain waves.
About half of the volunteers stayed awake. Twenty-four people slept and remained in a superficial and transient state of sleep, called N1. Fourteen people reached a deeper stage of sleep, called N2.
After the break, participants returned to solving their numerical problem. The researchers observed a significant difference between the groups. People who went into superficial and early sleep were 2.7 times more likely to detect a secret hoax than people who had not slept, and 8.5 times more likely to be diagnosed with a secret hoax.
According to Audit, such a sharp difference in this type of experiment is very rare. “We were absolutely amazed at the intensity of the results.” The researchers also identified, as Audit puts it, a “creative brainwashing banquet” that appeared to accompany the dusk phase of sleep – a combination of alpha brain waves, which usually indicate relaxation, and delta waves, which belong to deep sleep.
John Kounios, a neuroscientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia and co-author of The Orca Factor: Their Moments! Creative Insight and the Brain ”(The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain) warns that this study does not show that time spent in N1 sleep actually activates the understanding of the aftermath. “It could be that dealing with the issue and starting a latency period gave rise to the N1 and subsequent insights,” he said. “As a result, N1 is a by-product of the processes that have given rise to insight, not the cause of that insight.”
Audit says more research is needed to unravel the link between N1 and creativity. But the results show a tempting possibility, something like Edison’s self-optimization: People may be able to learn to go to bed at dusk, or produce a feast of creative brainwaves when needed.
Edison seems to have realized the creative power of napping. But do not rely too much on his habit. He also said that sleep is a “criminal waste of time.”