Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in Clinical psychology. She specializes in Pediatric Psychology and Behavioral Medicine.
If you’ve taken any physiology, chemistry, anatomy, neurology or psychology classes you are probably aware that the nerve cells in our brain communicate through chemicals called neurotransmitters. However, when experiments confirmed his idea it was a major discovery – major enough to earn the person who designed the study, Otto Loewi, the Nobel Prize in medicine.
What most people don’t know however, is that this idea came about as a matter of Loewi’s sleeping patterns. One night, Loewi woke up in the middle of the night with what he believed to be an important idea. He scribbled down everything he had in his mind, then went back to sleep. When he woke and picked up his notebook, he realized that he’d written nothing but gibberish.
Luckily the next night, Loewi woke up right after he had fallen asleep. This time however, he got up and carried out the experiment that had come to him somewhere between waking and sleep. By the next day he had established the basic process confirming his theory which won him the Nobel Prize.
The Bizarre Sleep Technique Used by Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali
Loewi wasn’t the only creative individual to benefit from short trips into sleep. Artist Salvador Dalí and inventor Thomas Edison purposely used this rather bizarre technique when they needed inspiration.
Edison slept 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 did these four or five times a day and 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.
Dali believed this technique was an ideal practice for those who worked in a field depending on the mind and creativity. He said that these short naps “revivified” a person’s entire “physical and physic being” and leaving them energized and inspired for an hour of creative work.
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..
In this place between wakefulness and sleep is a bizarre and fascinating state which is characterized by dream-like visions and unusual sensory experiences. Phenomena that occur during this stage include hypnogogic hallucinations, lucid thought and lucid dreaming. 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 Creativit
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.
These findings are consistent with another study that showed that 10 minutes spent in what they called “awake quiescence” which was a quiet restful time spent in a dimly lit room with decreased sensory stimulation more than doubled the number of subjects who were able to find a hidden rule when compared to 10 minutes of active wakefulness. Though it wasn’t measured it was hypothesized that the 10 minutes of awake quiescence included brief times subjects entered a hypnogogic phase.
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.
This method is easy enough to try, based on the system both Edison and Dali used. The key is to find a way to ensure that as soon as you begin to drift deeper into sleep and your muscles relax, something occurs that wakes you up. You can try sitting comfortably in a chair, with something weighty in one hand and an upside down dish or pot underneath it that will produce a loud noise when the object strikes it.
Write down whatever comes to mind when you are fully alert and see if this increases your creativity. It is likely to provide new ways of seeing things and the ability to better think outside the box, especially if you find that you are in a slump and can’t come up with any new options in a particular area.
It may take some practice doing this until it becomes natural, but at this point you just may be surprised at what your mind gives you when you wake from a hypnogogic state.
© 2021 Natalie Frank