Does sleeping make us more creative?

Fifteen years before his hit movie Sink or Swim, Gilles Lelouche co-directed his first feature film: Narco. In this comedy, Guillaume Canet plays a character suffering from narcolepsy, which at first glance appears to be a handicap. But the young man comes to realize that the condition also gives him an incredibly vivid imagination that turns his dreams into story books. In line with this scenario, a study recently carried out on narcoleptic subjects suggests a link between sleep and creative abilities.

Few studies have attempted to unravel the mystery of sleep as a “creative muse,” though some have shown the role of REM sleep in creativity. This sleep phase could encourage the reorganization of associative networks, offer a better perspective on a problem, and generate less obvious associations that could lead to creative solutions (see Cai et al., 2009 for example). However, as the authors point out (in the introduction to their article), in this research, creativity is not directly evaluated (except by simple associative tests).

Since creative abilities generally develop over many years, the researchers were faced with the challenge of finding topics to analyze over a long period of time. The scientific team (consisting of doctors from the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, researchers from INSERM, the CNRS and the Brain and Spine Institute at the Sorbonne, in collaboration with a team from the University of Bologna) found the solution: “call upon REM sleep and dream experts: subjects with narcolepsy.” This rare sleep disorder is characterized by sudden sleep attacks in which patients commonly go immediately into the REM sleep phase. This isn’t the case in people who do not suffer from the condition, whose nights typically begin with a slow sleep phase. As a result, narcoleptic subjects experience excessive daytime sleepiness, often accompanied by direct transitions from wakefulness to REM sleep. Scientists also point out that the narcoleptic subjects are most often what is known as "lucid dreamers,” people who are consciously aware of their dreams (sometimes to the point of being able to control the scenarios!). Other studies have already reported a positive association between lucid dreaming and creativity.

For the reasons mentioned above, C. Lacaux and her colleagues postulated that narcoleptics might be able to achieve higher levels of creativity. To test the hypothesis, the team compared 185 narcoleptic subjects (average age = 36 years; 56% women) against 126 control subjects (average age = 33 years; 52% women). The researchers chose two measures to assess their creative capacities as accurately as possible (which is not an easy task). The first (subjective) task took the form of self-administered questionnaires that included a “creative profiles” test focused on personality, and another “creative achievement” test (with questions about subjects’ personal achievements in various artistic fields, such as writing, cinema, architecture, cooking, etc.). The second (more objective) measure was a formal test (EPoC, Evaluation of Potential Creativity) that assesses the two main dimensions of creativity, using a divergent thinking task (finding alternative uses for objects) and a convergent thinking task (putting several objects together into a single, coherent and unique production). Sixty participants (30 patients and 30 controls) took the test.

The results indicated that narcoleptics had greater creative potential than subjects in the control group. This strong potential extended to all creative modes of thinking analyzed in the study (except for divergent creative thinking). Study co-author D. Oudiette said, however, that "only some of [the narcoleptic subjects] really stood out in terms of creative fulfillment. Moreover, among people with narcolepsy, the subgroup of lucid dreamers obtained the highest scores on the creative profiles test, suggesting a role of dreams in creative abilities." The research team explains these results as being due to more frequent “opportunities” for narcoleptic individuals to incubate and associate ideas during REM sleep and remember them upon awakening. This would represent a silver lining for those who suffer from this challenging sleep disorder.

Broadly speaking, this research opens new avenues for reaching a better understanding of dreaming and REM sleep.

And with that, I’m off to take a nap!
Source: : Célia Lacaux, Charlotte Izabelle, Giulio Santantonio, Laure De Villèle, Johanna Frain, Todd Lubart, Fabio Pizza, Giuseppe Plazzi, Isabelle Arnulf, Delphine Oudiette, “Increased creative thinking in narcolepsy”, in Brain, May 2019. https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/awz137 Brain and Spinal Cord Institute website: https://icm-institute.org/fr/actualite/narcolepsie-rend-plus-creatif/ Cai D, Mednick S, Harrison E, Kanady J, Mednick S. “REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks”, in Proc Natl Acad Sci, 2009

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