Let’s sleep on it

Researchers from City University of London are working to develop ways for managers to use creativity during sleep to increase creative problem solving whilst we are awake.

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley. 

What else are you doing while you are reading this blog? I’m guessing you’re doing at least one other activity. Most likely you are scanning this whilst commuting on the train, waiting in-line to pay for petrol or even checking this and your social media updates while sitting on the loo!  Like me, you use these tiny moments, to catch up because there simply isn’t enough time in the day.  In fact, if you’re anything like the average modern worker you always have too much to do and too little time, and that’s before dashing home to feed the dog, thinking about going to the gym, getting the laundry done…and then logging-on again to finish that final report.  And in the meantime your boss is telling you that the organisation needs to be more innovative, and that you need to be more creative…

…so exactly when are you going to fit that in?

We know that the busier you are, the harder it is to be creative. In fact, research by Teresa Amabile (2002) shows a single crazy busy day can inhibit creativity for at least the two following days, and sometimes a lot longer. So wouldn’t it be great if we could somehow use our spare time when we are asleep to help boost our ability to be creative when we’re awake.  Well if you’re someone who likes to say ‘let’s sleep on it’ you are definitely onto something.  Certain types of sleep state where you move between dreaming sleep (called Rapid Eye Movement or REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep has been shown to increase fluency, flexibility and originality of thought.  Though we don’t yet know exactly how this works, the research suggests that:  “sleep…may enhance the ability of people to access the remote associations that are critical for creative innovations” (Drago et al, 2010).

Creativity ‘vs’ usefulness

That’s all very well, but some of the obscure dreams we have about tap dancing dragons or such might not seem particularly useful for work – even if it’s very creative!  But, this creativity generated in sleep can help us during the day with real problems.  In 1869 the chemist, Dmitri Mendeleev, was struggling to find a way to order the elements.  He knew what the problem was, he just couldn’t find the creative solution. Until in a dream he saw the elements of the universe arranged like a beautiful melody, each element connected and linked to form a harmony. Writing everything down as soon as he awoke, this dream was published as the periodic table we all remember from chemistry class. Mendeleev’s vision was accurate enough to survive centuries of scientific examination and, whilst newly discovered elements have been added, the periodic table remains exactly as he dreamt.

There are countless stories of insights in sleep solving the problems of the waking world, from pro-golfer Jack Nicklaus dreaming a new way to hold his golf club and using this to win big, to Frederick Banting dreaming a treatment for managing diabetes in 1920 that we still use today. Banting’s use of insulin allowed children expected to die within days a chance to live a full life – not a bad result from one good night’s sleep!

So how can we dream up new ideas?

Deirdre Barrett’s research published in 2001 shows that we can direct our sleeping brains to work on the problems we want to solve.  Simply by focusing on the issue for five to ten minutes before going to sleep, and writing down your memories of your dreams first thing when you wake up, over 50% of people found creative solutions to their problems.

New research is applying these theories to help busy managers like you.  Researchers from City University of London are working to develop ways for managers to use creativity during sleep to increase creative problem solving whilst we are awake. They are on the lookout for managers willing to answer a simple survey, join in a workshop or test out a new tool designed to make creativity in sleep more useful.

So if you want to get more creative at work by making your sleep more useful, why not offer a couple of those spare moments of time to join in!

Please take a couple of minutes to fill in the survey here before the end of July and as a thank you receive your free guide: ‘9 ways to a better night’s sleep’ on the last page. You can also find out more about the research by emailing: Vanessa.Longley@cass.ac.uk

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Development at YoungMinds, and is currently researching how creative leaders can effectively and affordably develop the fundraising leaders of the future…plus she is working hard on fitting in a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

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