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Sleep and Innovation

October 13, 2008


Almost everybody has had an idea or received a suggestion and then been told to “sleep on it.” Some companies have also started to provide “nap rooms” for their employees, because some studies have demonstrated that productivity rises after a short nap. Leslie Berlin, project historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University, asserts that most businessmen and companies don’t believe or disregard the importance of sleep in increasing productivity and creativity [“We’ll Fill This Space, but First a Nap,” by Leslie Berlin, New York Times, 27 September 2008]. She reports that ignoring the mounting evidence about the importance of sleep could be a mistake.

“‘Waste not life,’ wrote Benjamin Franklin, patron saint of American entrepreneurs. ‘In the grave will be sleeping enough.’ Centuries later, the attitude toward sleep in America — and in American business, in particular — has scarcely changed. Corporate culture reveres the e-mail message sent at 3 a.m., the executive who rushes directly into a meeting from a red-eye flight. Bumper stickers offer an updated version of Franklin’s dictum: ‘I’ll sleep when I’m dead.'”

I admit that I’m guilty in this area. My schedule of meetings, travel, and administrivia is so filled that sleep more often than not finds itself at the bottom of my priority list. Most entrepreneurs feel an urgency to keep moving that it makes sleep a nuisance. The premise of Berlin’s article is that this kind of thinking could be a mistake.

“‘There is a cultural bias against sleep that sees it as akin to shutting down, or even to death,’ explains Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Harvard Medical School and director of the Sleep Laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital. Most people, Dr. Ellenbogen says, think of the sleeping brain as similar to a computer that has ‘gone to sleep’ — it does nothing productive. Wrong. Sleep enhances performance, learning and memory. Most unappreciated of all, sleep improves creative ability to generate aha! moments and to uncover novel connections among seemingly unrelated ideas.”

There has been lots of anecdotal evidence of people solving problems while sleeping, but “aha! moments” are relatively rare and, therefore, the connection between sleep and innovation has seemed more like an old wives’ tale. People who have had vivid dreams often realize when they wake up that the dreams were really quite disjointed. Such experiences leave them skeptical about the value of night thoughts. But dreams don’t seem to be the key to innovation. That doesn’t mean that people don’t believe that strokes of insight can come in dreams, but sleep seems to play another role when it comes to gaining insight. Berlin continues:

“Steven P. Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, once defined creativity as ‘just connecting things.’ Sleep assists the brain in flagging unrelated ideas and memories, forging connections among them that increase the odds that a creative idea or insight will surface. While traditional stories about sleep and creativity emphasize vivid dreams hastily transcribed upon waking, recent research highlights the importance of letting ideas marinate and percolate. ‘Sleep makes a unique contribution,’ explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition.”

A number of creativity gurus advise putting aside ideas that don’t seem to be coming together. They have noticed in case after case that short incubation periods lead to breakthroughs. Often the breakthrough comes because the innovator sees something that sparks a new approach or provides new insights into the problem. Such insights would not have come had the innovator been myopically focused on the idea. Berlin asserts that sleep plays an important role in this incubation period.

“Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem. ‘When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,’ says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology. Another theory is that typical approaches to problem-solving may decay or weaken during sleep, enabling the brain to switch to more innovative alternatives. A classic switching story, recounted in ‘A Popular History of American Invention’ in 1924, involves Elias Howe’s invention of the automated sewing machine: after much frustration with his original model, which used a needle with an eye in the middle, Howe dreamed that he was being attacked by painted warriors brandishing spears with holes in the sharp end. He patented a new design based on the dream spears; by the time the patent expired in 1867, he had earned more than $2 million in royalties. Spear-wielding savages make for compelling stories, but creative insights directly induced by dreams are rare. In general, people are unaware of sleep’s effects on their performance.”

What Berlin is discussing is different from “sleep learning,” otherwise known as hypnopædia. Hypnopædia attempts to convey information to a sleeping person, typically by playing a sound recording to them while they sleep. This technique is supposed to be moderately effective at making people remember direct passages or facts, word for word, although I remain a skeptic. Sleep does seem to play a role in learning and memory, but perhaps not as directly as advocates of hypnopædia think.

“Dr. Ellenbogen’s research at Harvard indicates that if an incubation period includes sleep, people are 33 percent more likely to infer connections among distantly related ideas, and yet, as he puts it, these performance enhancements exist ‘completely beneath the radar screen.’ In other words, people are more creative after sleep, but they don’t know it. This lack of awareness makes it hard to identify specific aha! insights that have been prompted by sleep.”

Although this sounds a bit like mumbo jumbo, I think most people who have slept on problems have had a subsequent clarity of thought that they have attributed to allowing the idea to incubate. However, such gut feelings still make the connection between sleep and innovation anecdotal. Nevertheless, the idea is beginning to catch on.

“Business attitudes toward sleep may be starting to shift. Claire Stapleton, a spokeswoman for Google, says ‘grassroots’ interest in sleep led to an on-campus talk by Sara C. Mednick a napping expert. Google also installed EnergyPods, leather recliners with egglike hoods that block noise and light, for employees to take naps at work. Other companies that have installed EnergyPods include Cisco Systems and Procter & Gamble. Vinayak Sudame, an engineer at the Research Triangle Park campus of Cisco, says he uses an EnergyPod to ‘shut my eyes and shut myself off for 10 or 15 minutes’ when he is working on a problem or needs some quiet time. More than a walk or a coffee break, he says, this type of ‘total mental rest’ helps him return to work with what he calls a ‘reorganized’ perspective.”

I’m not convinced that nap rooms will soon gain a place in most mainstream businesses, although a more health-conscious workforce is likely to be trained to recognize “how to determine the amount of sleep one needs, and how to recognize signs of fatigue and symptoms of sleep disorders.” That seems like common sense. One of the interesting things that Berlin points out is that there seems to be a difference in attitude between the U.S. coasts.

“In general, West Coast companies are more concerned about sleep issues than their East Coast counterparts, says Arshad Chowdhury, co-founder and chief executive of MetroNaps, which developed the EnergyPods. ‘Particularly in New York, where financial services play such a big role, people are consistently sleep-deprived and consistently in denial,’ he says.”

The Harvard study is not the first study that has connected sleep and creativity. Four years ago, a German study claimed to have demonstrated that “sleeping brains continue working on problems that baffle us during the day, and the right answer may come more easily after eight hours of rest” [“Study confirms sleep essential for creativity,” Associated Press, CNN.com, 21 September 2004].

“Scientists at the University of Luebeck in Germany found that volunteers taking a simple math test were three times more likely than sleep-deprived participants to figure out a hidden rule for converting the numbers into the right answer if they had eight hours of sleep. … The study involved 106 people divided into five separate groups of equal numbers of men and women ages 18 to 32. One group slept, another stayed awake all night, and a third stayed awake all day for eight-hour periods before testing following training in the main experiment. Two other groups were used in a supplemental experiment. The study participants performed a ‘number reduction task’ according to two rules that allowed them to transform strings of eight digits into a new string that fit the rules. A third rule was hidden in the pattern, and researchers monitored the test subjects continuously to see when they figure[d] out the third rule. The group that got eight hours of sleep before tackling the problem was nearly three times more likely to figure out the rule than the group that stayed awake at night. Jan Born, who led the study, said the results support biochemical studies of the brain that indicate memories are restructured before they are stored. Creativity also appears to be enhanced in the process, he said. ‘This restructuring might be occurring in such a way that the problem is easier to solve,’ Born said. Born said the exact process in the sleeping brain for sharpening these abilities remains unclear. The changes leading to creativity or problem-solving insight occur during ‘slow wave’ or deep sleep that typically occurs in the first four hours of the sleep cycle, he said. … Other researchers said they have long suspected that sleep helps to consolidate memories and sharpen thoughts. But until now it had been difficult to design an experiment that would test how it improves insight.”

Dreams, of course, come during so-called REM (rapid eye movement) sleep rather than deep sleep. Yet most of the anecdotal evidence of creativity is about how dreams provided answers. Wikipedia, for example, provides the following examples:


  • Jack Nicklaus had a dream that allowed him to correct his golf swing.
  • Jasper Johns was inspired to paint his first flag painting as a result of a dream.
  • Aphex Twin wrote much of the music on his album Selected Ambient Works Volume II by going to sleep in the studio, and then recreating the sounds he heard in dreams as soon as he woke up.
  • Rober Louis Stevenson came up with the plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde during a dream.
  • Paul McCartney discovered the tune for the song “Yesterday” in a dream.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein was inspired by a dream at Lord Byron’s villa.
  • British poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote “Kubla Khan” after finding inspiration in a night of sleep.
  • Otto Loewi, a German physiologist, won the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1936 for his work on the chemical transmission of nerve impulses. He discovered in a dream how to prove his theory.


The point is that light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep all seem to be important to creative thinking but for different reasons. Deep sleep seems to restructure our thoughts and permit connections between disparate ideas while REM sleep provides us with new ideas in a more visual way. Understanding the importance of sleep, however, does not provide more hours in the day to get things done. That is the challenge of busy people and the reason that most of us don’t get enough sleep.

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