A few months ago, I came across an interesting article from LiveScience about Salvador Dalí’s sleep technique to boost creativity, a technique also used by Thomas Edison. These great minds drifted off to sleep in a chair, holding an object in their hands, like a glass ball. When they drifted off to unconsciousness, the object would drop, and they would wake up with a mind filled with creative juices.
The key to this technique was that Dalí, Edison, and others woke up from a specific stage of sleep that augmented their ability to form new mental connections and find new ideas. What exactly is this sweet spot of creativity?
Sleep is primarily divided into two categories: Non-REM sleep and REM sleep (REM is rapid eye movement). In Non-REM (NREM) sleep, there are three stages: N1, N2, and N3. N1 is a very short stage of light sleep, where one can visualize colors, shapes, and parts of their dreams while still being aware of their real surroundings. This is the stage that Dalí and Edison woke from when the ball dropped, literally. LiveScience describes a study published in the journal Science Advances: participants of the experiment were asked to solve some math problems that had an untold, hidden pattern. The study found that “participants who spent at least 15 seconds in the N1 stage had an 83% chance of discovering the hidden rule, compared with a 30% chance for those who remained awake” (LiveScience, “Sleep technique used by Salvador Dalí really works”). However, the participants had to remain in and wake up from the N1 stage without going to the deeper sleep stage of N2 — otherwise the creativity boost would be nullified.
There are several other theories on which sleep stage boosts creativity and problem solving. A 2018 article by the Atlantic, for example, posited that REM and NREM stages work together, where “non-REM sleep extracts concepts, and REM sleep connects them” (The Atlantic, “A New Theory Linking Sleep and Creativity”). However, the theory that the N1 stage boosts creativity has the most recent data to corroborate it, with the study in LiveScience’s article published in 2021.
Most of the studies conducted on the relation between sleep and creativity focus on problem solving. Personally, though, I’ve experienced the effects in the artistic field, much like Dalí. I am a musician and aspiring songwriter. I have many ideas and verses of songs that I wrote myself. However, out of all the song fragments I have stored away in Google Keep notes, a vast majority of them were written during the night. Just when I feel sleepy, a few lines of a song run through my mind, and I have to wake myself up to write the lyrics and tune down.
It’s honestly a bit annoying to have to ruin that feeling of drowsiness and then force myself to think about sleep instead of the song I just wrote down, but my best lines and verses have come from these late-night adventures. I believe that it’s not just problem solving that is augmented by sleep, but creativity in the arts as well.
To anyone out there who is struggling with learning a concept, battling a difficult problem, or wants to create something, give this sleep technique a shot. Channel your inner Dalí, and you might surprise yourself with what your mind can do.