Need a Creative Boost? Nap Like Thomas Edison and Salvador Dalí

Waking up just after dozing off seems to be a science-backed source of inspiration

An old photograph of Thomas Edison asleep in an office chair. It looks like a line drawing and depicts Edison with a suit and top hot on dozed off in his chair.
A photographer captured Thomas Edison asleep in his workshop in 1904.  Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

When artist Salvador Dalí and inventor Thomas Edison needed inspiration, they adopted a similar, bizarre sleeping technique. They tried to sleep while holding a small object in their hands, which would then clatter to the floor and wake them up just as they started to doze off. When they woke, they'd go straight to work, Yasemin Saplakoglu reports for Live Science.  

It turns out that Dalí and Edison were onto something by letting their brains slip gently into the first phase of sleep, but no further. A new study published last week in Science Advances suggests that the hazy stage right between consciousness and sleep—called N1 or hypnagogia—can spark creativity, Clare Wilson reports for New Scientist.

"I’ve always had a lot of hypnagogic experiences, dreamlike experiences that have fascinated me for a long time," co-author Delphine Oudiette, a neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute, tells Bret Stetka for Scientific American. "I was quite surprised that almost no scientists have studied this period in the last two decades."

To investigate the science behind Dalí and Edison's sleep technique, Oudiette and her collaborators gave a set of math problems to 103 participants, and the key to solving them was a hidden pattern. Sixteen participants cracked the code and solved the problems immediately, but the rest were told to take a 20-minute break in which they were hooked up to a machine that monitors brain waves, Scientific American reports.

Just like Dalí and Edison, they got comfortable and held an object in their hands. Once the 20 minutes were up, they were told to record what thoughts they had while they were asleep. Then, they were assigned more questions. Nearly 83 percent of the participants who reached hypnogogia solved the hidden pattern and answered the questions. Only 31 percent of people who stayed awake and 14 percent of those who progressed to a deeper level of sleep managed to solve the problems, New Scientist reports.

"The new results suggest there is a creative sleep sweet spot during which individuals are asleep enough to access otherwise inaccessible elements but not so far gone that the material is lost," Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbra who was not involved in the study, tells Scientific American. However, the sleep break could have also refreshed some people's brains, allowing them to come back and solve the problems with clearer minds, he says.

Why the N1 stage is the "creative sleep sweet spot" is still unclear. Oudiette tells Live Science that it could be because people are still at least semi-aware of their surroundings but can also let their thoughts drift, creating a state of "loose cognition and weird associations." Plus, "[you] also have the ability to catch it if you get a good idea." 

"Alexander the Great and [Albert] Einstein potentially used Edison’s technique, or so the legend goes," Oudiette tells Scientific American. "And some of the dreams that have inspired great discoveries could be hypnagogic experiences rather than night dreams. One famous example is the chemist August Kekulé finding the ring structure of benzene after seeing a snake biting its own tail in a 'half-sleep' period when he was up working late."

In the future, Oudiette hopes to figure out how people could access this creative sweet spot without having to hold and object to wake them up. But in the meantime, it's an experiment that the everyday person can try out at home, Live Science reports.

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