The story goes that in the 1790s, Samuel Coleridge fell asleep one
evening at his desk, and when he woke he had the poem "Kubla Khan" in
his head. More recently, Paul McCartney went to sleep and dreamed the
tune to his hit song, "Yesterday." What is it about dreaming that spurs
creativity? Some researchers from the University of California at San
Diego are looking for clues.
Sleep researcher Sara Mednick
explains that sleep has different parts. Sleepers can spend time in a
deep dreamless sleep. They can also experience something called rapid
eye movement, or REM sleep - that's when dreams occur. Mednick says
scientists have long suspected a connection between REM sleep, dreams
and the creative process.
"If dreams are playing a role in
creative discovery, we should be able to find it somehow, but for some
reason, that's kind of confounded scientists for awhile," she says.
and her colleagues tried to find this connection by studying three
groups of people: a control group which is a non-sleep group, a group
in which subjects were able to nap but only had only non-REM sleep, and
the third group, that has REM sleep.
Mednick explains that the
control group was also not allowed to sleep. They just sat quietly in a
dark room with electrodes on their head, not sleeping, but very quiet
during the whole 90 minutes that everyone else is taking a nap.
the people in each group were given a mental task to do before their
rest period or nap. Mednick asked them to find the associations between
groups of words. One example of such a word group: heart, sixteen,
In the afternoon, after resting, Mednick asked them to
come back and complete the mental task - finding the word that connects
the other three.
"And what we find is that in the REM group,
people are performing better if they have had REM sleep than if they
have had non-REM or quiet rest," she says.
Mednick says the
mechanism of this creative word association isn't clear, but she and
her colleagues think that this kind of creativity is housed in a part
of the brain called the neocortex - that's where we bring our
experiences and world-view together. Another part of the brain involved
in this process is the hippocampus, which is where scientists think
memory is processed.
"At some point... and this is probably this
influence of REM sleep, is that REM sleep allows this information to
travel from the hippocampus to the neocortex, where it enters into this
big field of this associative network," Mednick says. "In there,
information becomes more accessible to creativity, because you begin to
associate items and bits of information that hadn't really been
Mednick says there are probably ways to use
sleep to one's advantage. She would like to work on devising a model
where REM sleep could be used consistently to help people solve
difficult problems - such as realizing that the link for the words
cookie, sixteen and heart is… sweet.
Mednick's research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.