For centuries, artists have been harnessing the creative power of sleep. Today, modern science suggests that our sleeping minds are capable of insights that are beyond our reach when awake.
In May 1965, Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones woke in the middle of the night in a hotel room in Florida. An obsessive, three-note cycle was running around his head. Richards reached for the guitar on the bed beside him, turned on a cassette recorder and got the melody down on tape – along with a few mumbled words – before turning over and going back to sleep. Before a week was out, the band was cutting the new tune at RCA Studios in Hollywood. Its title: Satisfaction. Released at the end of the month, it became the band’s first US no. 1.
Richards’ moment of inspiration illustrates the mysterious effects of sleep on the mind: a subject that has fascinated humanity for at least five thousand years. The Sumerians recorded their dreams on clay tablets, while the Ancient Greeks and Romans believed they were direct messages from the gods. More recently, Sigmund Freud’s theory of the unconscious officialised the idea that sleep reveals hidden depths that remain off-limits when we wake. Freud was interested in the unconscious as a therapeutic tool. Yet a century earlier, a previous generation of Western thinkers had begun exploring its role in the creative process.
Prominent among them was the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Born in 1772, Coleridge has left one of the most memorable examples of sleep’s role in triggering artistic creativity. In 1816, Coleridge described how he had fallen asleep in a chair while reading an account of the Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan. As he slept, a succession of fantastic images appeared in his mind’s eye, which he began committing to paper when he woke. Everything was going well until a knock at the door brought a visitor, who detained Coleridge for the next hour. When he eventually returned to his desk – as so often with dreams – the remaining images had evaporated.
A century later, the subconscious re-entered the artistic domain, this time thanks to the Surrealists. Salvador Dali – in particular – was intrigued by the powerful images that haunt the boundary between sleep and wakefulness, and experimented with different ways of capturing them. His favourite involved setting a metal plate on the floor beside a comfortable chair, sitting down with a spoon between his fingers, closing his eyes and relaxing his body. When he dropped off, the spoon would fall onto the plate, waking him to record the images that danced before his eyes.
While artists have been happy to exploit the creative power of sleep, scientists have attempted to analyse it. In 1993, Harvard Medical School Professor Dierdre Barrett asked 76 college students to choose a problem to solve as they slept. At the end of a week, she found that half the participants had dreamed about their problem and a quarter had dreamed up its solution. More recently, in 2004 neuroscientists Ullrich Wagner and Jan Born conducted an experiment in which participants had to transform long strings of numbers. Hidden within the data was a shortcut that made the task easier. Although only 20% of their subjects found the shortcut, the percentage rose to 59% among those who were allowed to sleep before trying again.
Research like this suggests – as artists have known for centuries – that sleep is not just a passive state. It is a time when the brain is rearranging ideas, comparing scenarios and solving problems. The benefits are available to all, not just those with a poem to write or a picture to paint. Indeed, legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus once improved his swing after seeing a new way to do it in a dream. So next time you are searching for the answer to something, remember the old advice: your best option may well be to sleep on it.