Story at a glance

  • Spending just 15 seconds between sleep and full wakefulness can boost creativity, a new study suggests.
  • Participants in a sleep study that only reached the first stage of sleep, or N1, were more likely than those who remained awake or those who progressed to a deeper level of sleep to find a hidden rule that would automatically produce the answer to a number of math problems.
  • Some have cautioned that the study does not fully prove that N1 caused the participants’ discovery of the rule and could just be a by-product of the process that actually did.

The twilight zone between sleep and wakefulness may be a “creative sweet spot,” according to new research.

Published this month in the journal Science Advances, sleep researchers in Paris found that spending at least 15 seconds in the first stage of sleep, or non-rapid eye movement, tripled creative problem solving.

Hypnagogia, or N1, is often characterized by vivid dreams, which most people tend to forget as they progress into a deeper sleep. The cognitive role of N1 is largely unknown, as most existing research focuses on the role of rapid eye movement, or REM, sleep.

In the study, 103 participants were presented with several eight-digit number sequences and asked to find the final solution as quickly as possible by applying two rules in a stepwise manner. Unbeknownst to them, the second number in each sequence was always the final solution, which would allow them to solve each problem much faster.


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After two blocks of 30 trials, participants took a 20-minute break where they were asked to relax in a semi-reclined position with their eyes closed. Each participant held an object in their right hand and, if the object were to fall, participants would report their thoughts immediately before the fall.

About half of participants stayed awake, while 38 fell asleep. Twenty-four stayed in N1 before they were awakened by their object falling out of their hand, and 14 people progressed to a deeper stage of sleep.

After the break, participants who had remained in N1 were nearly three times as likely to discover the problems’ hidden rule compared to those who had stayed awake and about six times as likely compared to participants who had reached a deeper stage of sleep.

“Our findings suggest that there is a creative sweet spot within the sleep-onset period, and hitting it requires individuals balancing falling asleep easily against falling asleep too deeply,” researchers wrote.

Additional research is needed to fully understand the connection between N1 and creativity, Delphine Oudiette, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Paris Brain Institute and one the researchers involved in the study, told Science News.

Others cautioned that the study doesn’t prove concretely that N1 triggered participants’ discovery of the hidden rule.

“It could have been possible that grappling with the problem and initiating an incubation process caused both N1 and the subsequent insight,” John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, told Science News. 

That would mean N1 is a merely “by-product of the processes that caused insight rather than the cause.”


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Published on Dec 14, 2021