Sleep and creativity – Finding creative solutions in your dreams

Problems? Sleep on it.

Those who look for creative solutions better go to bed on time. Sleep, as it turns out, is the secret weapon of creative minds. Dreams stood at the basis of many creative ideas and some shuteye might well help you solve that seemingly impossible problem at work…

If it’s creative solutions you’re after, embrace craziness

Great ideas often seem ridiculous at first glance. The more original an idea is, the stranger it will look. Therefore, those who are looking for creative solutions should really postpone their judgment. Premature criticism can crush potentially brilliant solutions. It doesn’t really matter if this criticism comes from a colleague, a manager or that annoying voice in your head.

Ideas usually need some time to ripen. Brilliant solutions often start as rough (often even completely unrealistic) ideas. By shooting down these flawed ideas, you block all sorts of promising directions in advance.

Creative problem-solvers understand this. They recognise the importance of embracing weird ideas. Seemingly crazy suggestions regularly spark amazing solutions.

Quite a challenge…

Unfortunately, embracing craziness is not easy. Even if you are aware that wild ideas are important, it’s quite a challenge to share strange ideas with others or to seriously consider something that appears to be insane. Even COMING UP with wild(ly original) ideas turns out to be bloody difficult. It’s no coincidence that the sentence “I’m just not very creative” is common in offices everywhere.

This natural aversion to odd ideas makes it very hard to generate creative solutions when necessary. For many, generating ‘out of the box’ solutions feels as impossible a task as writing a children’s book on quantum physics. Luckily though, there is one moment when creativity is a piece of cake for absolutely everybody.

At night, everyone is a creative genius

During the day, pretty much every adult is bothered by an internal censor.

Our prefrontal cortex (the front part of our brain) suppresses impulses and filters information it deems unimportant. If you’d have to process every bit of information you’d quickly become insane. Your brain helps you out by censoring the information and by keeping you from considering ideas that are too wild. This way, distractions are kept to a minimum and you are able to concentrate on your daily tasks.

A child’s prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed yet. Small children, therefore, have an imagination that runs as wild as the kids themselves. They aren’t ashamed of anything and no idea is too far-fetched. Their not-yet-developed brains make that children are true creative geniuses.

There is one moment when adults recover their childhood creativity: when they’re well asleep. Our dreams aren’t limited by that dreadful prefrontal cortex. When we fall asleep, our prefrontal cortex shuts itself down. The internal censor is silenced and your head quickly fills with the craziest associations. The most ridiculous scenarios are suddenly accepted at face value.

Unsurprisingly, history offers many examples of creative ideas that found their origins in a dream. Not only original stories like ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ were conceived in a dream, the same goes for iconic songs like ‘Yesterday’ (by Paul McCartney) and ‘Satisfaction’ (by The Rolling Stones). Even the science-fiction classic ‘The Terminator’ can be traced back to a dream.

The French poet St. Paul Boux supposedly even went as far as to hang up a sign on his bedroom door that read: “DO NOT DISTURB: POET AT WORK”

Clearly there have also been creative minds that attempted (and succeeded) to silence their inner critic by using drugs (such as alcohol), but if your goal is to solve problems creatively in the long run as well, a good night’s sleep is definitely preferable.

“I’ll sleep on it”

The proverbial act of ‘sleeping on a problem’ is actually a good idea. By sleeping on it, you’ll enable yourself to find original solutions. Researchers have shown that people’s problem-solving skills improve if they’ve been given the time to enter REM sleep (the dream phase). The abundance of surprising connections and curious ideas we face in our dreams, increases our chances of stumbling upon a novel solution.

Before going to bed, remind yourself of the most pressing challenge that still lacks a solution. While you’re asleep, your brain will work on the problem. Chances are that you’ll wake up with the brilliant insight you were looking for!

No time for some shut-eye?

In some situations, a problem will be too urgent to leave for the morning. A bit of dreamstorming is not always an option. Also, your manager might not understand you taking a nap during a crisis. Luckily, there are ways to silence your inner critic even without falling asleep.

As most people have lost the natural creativity they had as a child, we need a trick to help ourselves find original ideas and surprising perspectives. A great way to boost your creativity is by using ‘thinking techniques’; clever psychological techniques that enable anyone to generate creative ideas and elegant solutions. You can, for instance, force yourself to make new combinations by using a random image or random proverb as a starting point. Other creative thinking techniques help you to embrace crazy ideas by forcing you to eliminate elements that seem essential or by encouraging you to make the situation even worse.

Techniques like these will feel awkward at first, but practice makes perfect. If you’ll look for creative solutions in this structured way more often, the techniques will go more smoothly every time.

Curious how clever thinking techniques could lead to creative solutions in your organisation? Take a look at our incompany workshops or contact us and let’s discuss how we can help you.



  • Why We Sleep, Matthew Walker
  • Imagine; how creativity works, Jonah Lehrer

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