At night, the surrealist poet Saint-Pol-Roux used to hang a sign on his bedroom’s door that read: “Do not disturb: poet at work.” Indeed, may sleep increase our creativity? The link between creativity and sleep has been a topic of intense speculation, mainly based on anecdotal reports of artistic and scientific discoveries people have made while dreaming. Dmitri Mendeleev supposedly came up with the arrangement that became the periodic table while asleep. Yet, scientific proof of such a relationship remains scarce. To investigate the long-term effect of sleep on creativity, clinicians and scientists from Sorbonne University, Paris, France, and Bologna University, Italy, called upon experts of sleep and dreams: patients with narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder characterised by uncontrolled sleep attacks. These naps are special, as they often start immediately with a specific sleep stage named rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, whereas healthy subjects need to sleep for roughly one hour before entering REM sleep. Therefore, patients with narcolepsy have a swift access to REM sleep, a stage associated with robust dreaming activity. They also present many symptoms showing that the boundary between wakefulness and REM sleep is blurry. For example, most narcolepsy patients are lucid dreamers, meaning that they are conscious of dreaming while dreaming, to the point of sometimes having control over their dreams. It has also been shown that naps containing REM sleep are followed by a period of increased mental flexibility, in turn favouring problem solving. Given their life-long privileged access to REM sleep and dreams, may patients with narcolepsy have developed over time higher creative abilities than average?
To answer this question, the authors compared the creative abilities of patients with narcolepsy with healthy subjects. Defining and measuring creativity is not an easy task. In this research field, creativity is commonly defined as the ability to produce work that is both original and adapted to constraints. In order to obtain a picture of creativity as detailed and complete as possible, the authors asked participants to complete various tasks.
First, 185 patients with narcolepsy and 126 healthy subjects completed two questionnaires on creativity. The first questionnaire explores your creative profile and score, through 57 questions, and concludes whether one is innovative, imaginative, or a researcher. Then, in the second questionnaire subjects report creative achievements (from being a complete beginner to being a national star) in various domains of arts and sciences, including writing, theatre/film, humour, inventions, or culinary arts. The results of these two questionnaires provide a subjective measure of creativity. Next, researchers tested the creative performances of 30 patients with narcolepsy and 30 healthy subjects during a face-to-face two-hour long test of creativity, named the Evaluation of Creative Potential. The divergent-exploratory thinking, a thought process used to generate creative ideas, was tested by finding the greatest number of solutions to a problem (e.g., “Invent the maximum of shapes using two triangles”). The convergent-integrative thinking, the ability to give the correct answer to questions that do not require significant creativity, was tested by combing several elements into a coherent pattern (e.g., drawings a scene based on seven shapes, or writing a story that includes an animal, an old man, the suburb and three cars).
Globally, subjects with narcolepsy obtained higher creative scores than the healthy subjects, for both the subjective and the objective measures, and in all forms of creative profiles. Most symptoms of narcolepsy (sleepiness, lucid dreaming, hallucinations, but not treatments) were also associated with higher scores of creativity.
This increased creativity may be a result of more frequent opportunities for patients with narcolepsy to incubate ideas during daytime naps (with REM sleep). Moreover, the high dream recall frequency observed in narcolepsy may also provide them with a high pool of inspiring new ideas.
For the first time, an increased creativity is demonstrated in subjects with narcolepsy, providing a silver lining to this disastrous disease. These young adults are often considered lazy, but it appears their proficient lucid dreaming and creative abilities may help researchers better understand the role of dreaming in everyone’s life.
Featured image credit: “Grayscale photo of sleeping woman lying on bed” by Kinga Cichewicz. Public Domain via Unsplash.