Science

The “microsiestes” would boost creativity and knowledge

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Falling asleep for a few seconds and then waking up would stimulate creativity and perception. A test was carried out on 103 subjects: they had to solve a mathematical problem. If 16 of them found the shortcut to finding the solution, it turned out that some of those who didn’t find it until a brief sleep phase ended up doing it.

Innovation is at the heart of progress. Creativity, at the heart of innovation. However, how it arises in the human brain remains a mystery. However, American inventor Thomas Edison already had a clue in the early 21st century: He realized that if he fell asleep holding two steel balls, they would drop them just before sinking into a deeper sleep. His creativity seemed heightened.

Delphine Oudiette and her team conducted a study, published in the journal Science on December 8, 2021, which corroborates “to some extent” what Edison (and other inventors or artists) had experienced on various occasions.

The scientists used a simple method to test the initial hypothesis: comparing the abilities of a group of volunteer subjects before and after a microsiest. They had to solve a problem after falling asleep while another group was awake. “Our hypothesis was that people who fell asleep were more likely to have a Eureka! (a moment of insight) than the others ”, specifies Delphine Oudiette.

To measure the onset of this “creative enlightenment,” the scientists used the Number Reduction Task (NRT). A task in which the participants must solve as quickly as possible several hundred problems (here arithmetic) using defined rules (here two). While the solution was simple, it was nevertheless tedious. In addition, there was a hidden rule, more difficult to pin down than the simple “standard” solution to the problem.

“The phase of falling asleep is fleeting”

In the study carried out in December, 103 participants participated in the game. Throughout the experiment, the volunteers were equipped with sensors, placed on their head, chin and around their eyes to take measurements of brain, muscle and eye activities. 16 were excluded before the sleep phase as they had encountered the hidden rule earlier. The 87 who were still in the race were invited to sit comfortably in an armchair, in complete darkness. Conditions that favor falling asleep.

“However, we not only wanted people to fall asleep, we wanted them to remain in this transition phase between wakefulness and sleep so that we could specifically identify the role of this period in creativity. However, the conciliation phase is fleeting and the transition to a more consolidated sleep is unpredictable, which makes it almost impossible to anticipate when to wake up the participants ”, the researchers point out.

83% of sleepy participants managed to find the hidden rule

To overcome this difficulty, the researchers turned to Thomas Edison and another creative genius, Salvador Dali. During this break, the participants held (as Edison and Dali did) an object (here a plastic bottle). His fall was to provoke his awakening.

Sleep trace of a participant who fell asleep (N1); wakes up after dropping the bottle. Brain activity is shown in black, eye movements in blue, and muscle tone in green.

The results seem uplifting: 83% of participants who fell asleep managed to find the hidden rule, compared to 31% of those who stayed awake. However, the participants who slept more soundly lost this gain in creativity.

Narcolepsy – particularly prone to hypnagogia.

With this study, the scientists identified subjects particularly favorable to this boost of creativity: people with narcolepsy. “They have greater creative potential since the transition to sleep is frequent during the day,” say the experts. Another study has also identified that hypnagogic hallucinations act as modulators of creativity in narcolepsy.

However, the “theory” of Edison and Dali is quite applicable in everyday gestures. To try this method at home, just bring something heavy, slippery, and loud enough and sit down for a nap. However, don’t wait for a Eureka moment when you wake up, because it usually happens a little later. In fact, in the study conducted by Delphine Oudiette’s team, participants had this creative enlightenment after having solved, on average, 94 new mini-problems after waking up. “The mechanisms by which falling asleep made it possible to induce a eureka in the context of our experience therefore remains a mystery,” the researchers write.

For Professor Adam Haar Horowitz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “hypnagogy is really a new kind of consciousness that people have not yet explored.” A sentiment shared by Delphine Oudiette’s team, who also wonder: “Can hypnagogic experiences play a role in inspiration? Thus, this twilight part of the brain remains to be explored.

Science Advances

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