Dreams: Setting the Stage for Creativity

What better way to celebrate America’s Independence Day than to visit its (arguably) first National Park? I had been looking forward to disconnecting from technology and camping in Yosemite for months. I find it exceedingly difficult to take time away from work and have resorted to planning vacations which are sufficiently distracting in order to clear my head. The breathtaking beauty of the Yosemite Valley, combined with the unique challenges of sleeping, eating and living outdoors certainly fit the bill. The change of pace, scenery and tasks allowed my mind to wander and wonder.


Creativity is a slippery process: first, you have to gather all the necessary information and skills, second, you try to combine what you know or can do in a new way, then you generally need to step away from the problem or task and let it simmer for a bit, and finally, the new idea or way of expressing yourself seems to ‘pop’ into your mind. That third stage is called the incubation period. Understanding exactly what’s going on during that incubation period is arguably he Holy Grail in the study of creativity.

This week I came across two interesting studies of incubation that were published within a few months of each other in 2009. Sio and Ormerod reviewed a number of empirical studies of incubation in the journal Psychological Bulletin and found that when someone needs to consider a large amount of information to come up with a creative solution, the incubation period is particularly important. When the problem is visual rather than language-based, incubation is only effective if the person has undergone a long preparation period and has hit a creative block.

Denise Cai in Sarah Mednick’s lab at UCSD wondered whether dreaming, or rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, when our brain is busy consolidating what we’ve learned while we were awake, might be the critical component in incubation. She had her subjects take Mednick’s Remote Associates Test (RAT), a commonly used test of creativity, in which the goal is to figure out how three items are related (e.g. cookies, sixteen, heart - once you’ve had a chance to think about it, scroll down to see the answer below) and then she randomly assigned them to one of two conditions: full-on napping (measured by a polysomograph) or resting quietly while listening to instrumental music. Turns out that napping did, in fact, improve performance significantly more than rest when they were tested again on the RAT in the afternoon.

How important REM sleep is for memory consolidation remains fairly controversial, but there’s no question that sleep affects memory, especially the deepest sleep, called slow-wave sleep. Many professional classical musicians take a nap in the afternoon: napping helps their bodies recover from a long morning practice session and prepare for an evening concert but it’s also likely that their brains are consolidating the motor sequences that they have been learning while their conscious minds are at rest.

Whatever the relationship might be between sleep, memory consolidation and creativity, one thing is clear: there is something still magical about incubation. This weekend, my dreams were filled with waterfalls and butterflies, and new ideas are bubbling in my brain. It will be a while before I underestimate the importance of taking time off again. Oh and the answer to the RAT item above is sweet. Literally.