Research Shows Brief Hypnogogic Naps Used by Salvatore Dali and Thomas Edison Could Increase Creativity

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

New study shows a technique that helps you enter the first stage of sleep then immediately awaken triggers inspiration and creativity

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Brief naps entering the hypnogogic phase of sleep may increase your creativity and provide inspiration (Public Domain)Sleep Lies Perfect in Them, 1908, by Arthur B. Davies (Public Domain)/Wikimedia Commons

Edison was known to sleep in short naps throughout the day. To prevent himself from completely falling asleep, he’d hold steel bearings in his hands and if drifted off they would drop to the floor hitting metal saucers he placed on the ground and wake him. As soon as he awoke, he rushed to write down whatever ideas he was thinking about at the time. He credited many of his most notable discoveries this unusual sleep strategy.

Salvatore Dali had a remarkably similar sleep technique. While Edison’s naps could last up to an hour, Dali’s siestas were intended to last less than a second. Already thought of as eccentric, Dali believed one of the main secrets to becoming a great painter was what he called, “slumber with a key.” During these micro naps, Dali would sit in a chair with his wrists on the edge of the arm rests and his hands dangling over. In his left hand he held a heavy key that would drop from his grasp as soon as he dozed off, hitting an upside down plate and startling him awake.

The Hypnagogic Sleep State

This early sleep stage when you are not really asleep but somewhere between wakefulness and sleep is called the hypnagogic state. It lasts for a very short period, usually just a few minutes, before you fall completely asleep. The hypnogogic state accounts for only about 5 percent of a person’s total sleep time, and it is said to be extremely understudied.. Yet, hundreds of years before psychologist came up with the term “hypnogogic”, artists and other creative individuals were using this state of awareness to come up with some of their best and most unique ideas.

During this state, the mind is "fluid and hyperassociative," giving rise to images that can "express layers of memories and sensations," dream researcher Michelle Carr explained.

New Study Shows That Sleep Onset May be a Key to Creativity

In a new study published in Science Advances, researchers examined the relationship between the hypnogogic sleep phase and creative problem solving. In this study, investigators assessed whether a brief period spend in the hypnogogic state promotes creative insight, which they defined as the abrupt discovery of an answer to a problem. Subjects were given mathematical problems without being told there was a hidden rule that would let them solve the problems quickly.

Results indicated that when subjects spent at least 15 seconds in the hypnogogic phase during a resting period, they were three times more likely to detect the hidden rule (83 percent compared to 30 percent for participants who remained awake). However, if the participants entered deep sleep even briefly the effect disappeared. The investigators concluded that there is a “creative sweet spot” that exists in the sleep-onset period, and accessing it necessitates people balancing falling asleep easily while not falling asleep too deeply.

Take Away

It appears that when you enter the hypnogogic phase without passing into deep sleep, the unusual experiences and sensory perceptions that occur while you are still alert enough to be aware of them can foster a highly creative state when you become fully awake.

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