Taking a Nap Could Make You More Creative

Eli Hill
Nov 6, 2018 11:03PM

Coming up with creative ideas is strenuous work. Even Salvador Dalí, one of the best known Surrealist artists, had his fair share of stress when it came to conceiving ideas. But instead of waiting around for ingenuity to strike, he had a trick for spurring inspiration: napping.

Every day, Dalí would block out half an hour for his “slumber with a key.” This ritual involved placing an upside down plate on the floor by an armchair; then, he would sit in the chair, allow his head to tilt back, and position his hand above the plate, wrist facing up. He placed a heavy key in between his thumb and forefinger, so that when he began to doze off, the key would slip from his hand, chime against the plate, and wake him up.

Dalí claimed that in the minutes between falling asleep and the clamor of the fallen key, he had dreams that would influence his Surrealist artworks, and after, he had a burst of energy that helped him work through the day. In his 1948 book 50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship, Dalí suggested that a nap is sufficient “for your whole physical and psychic being to be revivified by just the necessary amount of repose.” Decades later, research shows that Dalí’s advice holds up: Naps, if timed correctly, can be a useful tool for boosting cognitive function, emotional regulation, and creativity.

Early evidence of a link between napping and productivity came out of a 2003 study at Harvard University, led by researchers Sara Mednick (a leader in the science of napping), Ken Nakayama, and Robert Stickgold. They placed participants into two groups: one section took a 60- or 90-minute nap, while the other stayed awake continuously. Both groups completed a texture discrimination task––a common exercise used to measure visual perception learning––once in the morning and once at night. The results showed that the group that stayed awake had significantly lower performance at the end of the day than they had in the morning, while the group that took a 90-minute nap had scores that markedly improved from day to night.

The napping group had slept long enough to experience REM sleep, which, Mednick later explained in a 2013 TEDx Talk, is “where the mind is fluid and hyper-associative.” This sleep stage is typically reached at around 90 minutes of sleep, and Mednick has found in further research that it’s conducive to creative thinking that might not occur when a person is awake. “In other words, in this state your mind is able to bring together distant ideas in a new way,” she explained. Additionally, REM sleep gives the brain time to pause and re-collect itself, as it’s a time when there are low levels of the anxiety-inducing chemical norepinephrine in the brain.

An association between power naps and creativity was found in a 2012 study led by Georgetown University Medical Center professor Andrei Medvedev. In it, he examined the brain activity of participants as they slumbered and found that the right side of the brain—which is responsible for creative thinking—saw a boost in activity during naps. “This is speculation, but the brain could be doing some helpful housecleaning, classifying data, consolidating memories,” Medvedev said at the time.

Other research has found links between emotional well-being and sleep. For example, a 2010 study led by University of California Berkeley professor Matthew Walker and the Center for Human Sleep Science involved showing participants a series of emotion-inducing images while inside of an MRI scanner. Half of the participants were shown the images a second time after 12 hours had passed, while the other half went home to sleep. When the group that slept all night was shown the same images the following morning, the researchers found a drop in emotional response––they even saw a decrease of activity in the section of the brain that’s responsible for painful feelings. In contrast, the group that had not slept did not experience a decrease in emotional regulation.

This distinction between the two groups showed researchers that sleep can strengthen the area of the brain that allows us to control our emotions. This was proven further in another study, co-conducted by Walker, which found that a loss of sleep led participants to feel more lonely and compelled to socially isolate themselves the next day.

So sleep––even in the form of a nap––can be a powerful pick-me-up to help us excel in collaborative work, generate new ideas, and keep existential crises at bay (and, for artists, away from the studio).

Importantly, Raphael Vallat, another researcher at the Center for Human Sleep Science, warns that an ill-timed nap can backfire. “A one-hour nap is definitely not the best option,” Vallat explained. “You are likely to wake up in the middle of deep sleep and experience a painful and long lasting sleep inertia afterwards.”

To avoid waking up groggy, aim for either a 90-minute nap––where you’ll reap the rewards of REM sleep––or a 20-minute nap. The latter option will provide you with a refreshed state of mind, in a similar vein to Dalí’s approach. For people who regularly get a full night’s sleep (between 7–9 hours for adults), 20 minutes is probably a better option.

If you’re not convinced that a nap will give you a creativity or productivity boost (or if you’re not one for napping), consider setting aside time for daydreaming. “When we nap, and more generally, when we sleep, our brain is hard at work reorganizing what we have learned during the previous wake period,” Vallat explained. “Some researchers think that the same process of memory re-organization happens as well, to a limited extent, during daydreaming.”

“At the very least, take some rest times during the day, without your phone, internet, or any kind of external stimuli,” he added. “Really.”

Eli Hill