Dream On! Stimulate Creativity by Taking a Long Nap

How REM sleep facilitates creative problem-solving

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Research has found that when solving a challenging problem, taking an incubation break will enable your brain to come up with a more creative solution. Several studies suggest that if you can include sleep and dreaming during that break, the effects are significantly enhanced. Professor Vishton explains.

Woman taking a nap on sofa
After you take a break from problem-solving and take a nap, your brain can arrive at creative solutions during REM sleep. Photo By Rawpixel.com / Shutterstock

Dreaming and Creativity

If your incubation period includes a night of sleep and dreaming, you’re brain will be more geared for creativity. Denise Cai and her colleagues presented sleep-deprived participants with a set of Remote Associates Test (RAT) items (finding a word that forms an association with three given words) along with challenging analogy problems.

The participants then took a nap or stayed awake while resting quietly for 90 minutes. Some participants in the nap group entered the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of sleep, which is associated with dreaming. 

The participants who produced REM sleep returned to the problems and performed significantly better than the quiet rest group and even the nap participants who did not exhibit that REM sleep. A variety of studies has shown that the formation of long-term memory is enhanced by REM sleep. 

These researchers actually confirmed that finding in this paradigm, but the differences in long-term memory couldn’t account for the significant increases in creative problem solving performance. Sleeping—especially dreaming—enhances creative problem solving.

Genius Dreamers

There are a variety of famous cases in which great creativity has emerged from thoughts during sleep and dreaming. Friedrich Kekulé is known for deriving the chemical structure of benzene. 

The ring structure of this molecule was hard to get from the data that Kekulé had available at the time. The solution to his puzzle emerged—not during an intentional work session in the lab, but during a dream state. 

He described the solution as just coming to him, as if out of thin air. Mary Shelley developed her ideas for Frankenstein after dreaming about them. Salvador Dali occasionally described his famous paintings as pictures of things he saw in his dreams.

Sleep research suggests that your brain enters the REM stage of sleep several times every night. We all dream almost every time we sleep for several hours in a row. 

During REM sleep, the brain partially replays experiences of the previous day; it consolidates them into long-term memories, and it seems to find abstract relationships between different sources of information. All of this is helpful for creativity and problem-solving. There’s one problem, however: We often don’t remember our dreams.

Keeping a Dream Journal

To enhance your memory of your dreams, Professor Vishton recommends keeping a dream journal. Place a notebook next to your bed, with a pen, and a dim nightlight you can turn on in the middle of the night. 

Most people awake with a memory of a dream, at least sometimes. When that happens, grab the notebook and jot down some notes about the dream that you just had. Then go back to sleep.

The experience of reading those notes in the morning can be fun, which itself may be a boost for creativity. Remember that the moment your dream ends, it begins to rapidly fade from your memory. 

“The notes, clearly written by you, but about something that you don’t remember in detail, is a strange thing,” Professor Vishton said. “When I’ve read my own notes in this situation, I occasionally get the strange feeling that someone else wrote them.”

Sometimes, the notes might not make sense. If you do this on a regular basis, though, you will tend to remember your dreams better. Sometimes, along with the entertainment factor, there are interesting insights to be had. 

The contents of our dreams, while occasionally bizarre, are not random. You tend to dream about the things that have been on your mind over the course of the previous day. Thinking them through at a dreamish level can lead to a novel perspective.

Inspiration Plus Perspiration

Keep in mind that dreaming promotes that wonderful “Aha!” moment when a solution appears, as if from thin air. It’s a magical experience, but it’s the end of the creative process, not the beginning. In order to produce good creative work, you have to work.

Most successful creative people are extremely disciplined about when and where they work. Thomas Edison’s noted for saying that genius is about one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration. Dreaming leads to boosts in creativity, but the creative ideas will only be realized if you then return to focusing on your work.

No matter what creativity tips and tricks you use, you’ll still need to invest effort in searching for creative ideas and solutions. If you invest both your inspiration and your perspiration, that’s creativity.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.

About Kate Findley 277 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.