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Study Says Light Sleep May Foster Insight and Creativity

Olivia Murillo

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Olivia Murillo, Contributing Writer

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Light sleep can help our ability to solve problems, according to a recent study, suggesting this period of sleep supports creativity.

Researchers from the Paris Brain Institute aimed to determine if the first few minutes of sleep, known as its first stage or the period of “dozing off,” fosters creative insight. Earlier research has shown that deep sleep plays a role in memory association and other cognitive functions.

In the study, participants learned how to solve a math problem and completed sample problems as quickly as possible. During a 20-minute break, participants sat comfortably in a room and were allowed to rest or fall asleep. Researchers also instructed them to hold an object and to report on their thoughts just before dropping the object, if they did so.

During the second test after the break, some participants had what the researchers called a “Eureka moment” and found a way to solve the problems faster and more accurately. Participants who had reached only the first stage of sleep seemed to have a creative advantage: More than three-quarters (83%) of these participants discovered the shortcut to solving the math problems.

Only 30% of the participants who did not sleep identified the shortcut, and 14% of participants who slept more deeply discovered it. This suggested that light sleep had more benefits to creative problem-solving when compared to deeper sleep or no sleep at all.

“Light sleep had more benefits to creative problem-solving when compared to deeper sleep or no sleep at all.”

“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 said.

The researchers referred to the napping practice that inventor Thomas Edison may have employed. Holding an object as he napped, Edison would drop the object as he fell deeper into sleep. This would wake him up, and he said could better remember “creative sparks” he had as he was dozing off.

Researchers suggest further research into better understanding how light sleep can impact creative thinking.

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About Our Editorial Team

Olivia Murillo

Contributing Writer

Olivia is the lab administrator for Dr. Matthew Walker’s Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley. She manages a longitudinal project studying sleep and cognition in healthy older adults and has assisted research investigating various detrimental effects of sleep deprivation in young adults.


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