Purposeful Napping – how sleep can make you more creative


Zzzz Zzzz Zzzz … Zzzz Zzzz … Zzzz … mmm wah, mmm – aha! {Scribble}

In the last few days I have read a few blog posts from educators taking part in the #28daysfowriting challenge this month, referring to having an idea for a blog post during the night and then waking up to discover the thought had slipped away. The role of sleep in the creative process has been something I have always been fascinated about.

It was the story of Thomas Edison that first piqued my interest in the role of napping and it’s effect on creativity. Even though he did once say that sleep was a “heritage from our cave man days” apparently he could sleep anywhere and was once discovered taking a nap inside a cupboard.

This great series of posts about Thomas Edison outlined how he was not just sleeping to catch up on rest, but as part of his creative process, purposefully napping as he cogitated a thorny challenge:

During his day, Edison would take time out by himself and relax in a chair or on a sofa. Invariably he would be working on a new invention and seeking creative solutions to the problem he was dealing with. He knew that if her could get into that “twilight state” between being awake and being asleep, he could access the pure creative genius of his subconscious mind.

To prevent himself from crossing all the way over the “genius gap” into deep sleep, he would nap with his hand propped up on his elbow while he clutched a handful of ball-bearings. Then he would just drift off to sleep, knowing that his subconscious mind would take up the challenge of his problem and provide a solution. As soon as he went into too deep a sleep, his hand would drop and the ball-bearings would spill noisily on the floor, waking him up again. He’d then write down whatever was in his mind.

What was Edison looking for and why was he putting his brain into that state?

As I have outlined previously creative learning is a relational process, creativity is no different as Bruce Nussbaum states:

Creativity is relational. Its practice is mostly about casting widely and connecting disparate dots of existing knowledge in new, meaningful ways. To be creative, you’ve got to mine your knowledge. You have to know your dots. – Bruce Nussbaum

When we sleep and nap our dream state consumes us with a strange amalgam of all that we have been processing or thinking about.

Yet these bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.

This last paragraph is taken from this article from BBC Future. It refers to that moment when we have just woken up as sleep inertia or a hypnopompic state. (Brilliant. I just love learning new words – I think hypnopompic has become an immediate favourite.) It is this state that Edison was deliberately putting himself into and the BBC article outlines that according to some research it helps with inferential thinking, and our ability for remote associations.

Making the links between pieces of information that our daytime rational minds see as separate seems to be easiest when we’re offline, drifting through the dreamworld.

So when you are next facing a tricky problem at school or a big challenge that just seems too much, or even hitting a blank for your next blog post, trust in the power of your subconscious brain to figure it out. Remember to keep something nearby, as Edison did, to jot down your ideas, but perhaps find somewhere better than a cupboard for your kip!