Set off the Lightbulb in Your Brain during a Power Down State

Enhancing Creativity Through Sleeping and Daydreaming

By Richard Restak, MD, The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Do you “squeeze” your brain extra hard when working through complex problems? As it turns out, according to Dr. Restak, our most creative ideas often arrive when we’re sleeping or daydreaming.

Image of sleeping lady in a brain imaging machine
Creativity comes during our brain’s power down states of rest, relaxation, and sleep. Image by: Gorodenkoff / Shutterstock

Power Down States

Coming up with a creative solution to a problem does not always arise from states when our mind is most active. Instead, creativity often arises from what we call a power down state such as rest, relaxation, and sleep—especially dream sleep.

American art historian Bernard Berenson said, “Real ideas come to me while relaxed and brooding, meditative, passive. Then the unexpected happens. An illumination, a combination of words, a revelation for which I had made no conscious preparation.” 

Berenson is referring to mind wandering—aka daydreaming. That’s an everyday power down state. Of course, it’s traditionally frowned upon, but it’s also very common: 30 percent of people admit to mind wandering

If you daydream, rest assured that there’s nothing wrong with it. It functions as an escape from boredom, for one thing. 

Mind Wandering and Creativity

James Thurber’s story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” featured a middle-aged man who escaped from boredom through daydreams of himself as a military officer, a brilliant doctor, and a heroic bomber. “Mind wanderers,” not surprisingly, score high on creativity. 

When the mind wanders, the brain’s executive centers are activated along with a default network. The combination of these two networks may explain the link between mind wandering and creativity.

To enhance your creativity, let your mind “putter around” for a bit so your brain is free to wander productively. Don’t overdo mind wandering, though; it’s best in small doses.

According to Jonathan Schooler, a UC Santa Barbara-based researcher on mind wandering, you need to allow your mind to wander if you want to be creative, but you also need to notice that you are mind wandering and catch the creative idea.

Sleep Leads to Insights

Creative insights emerge from power down states. Especially important is the contribution of sleep, with or without dreams. Three examples illustrate this. 

First, organic chemist August Kekule discovered the chemical structure of the benzene ring, with six carbon and six hydrogen atoms. He dreamed about two intertwined snakes biting their own tails. The dream was based on a grand jury testimony during a murder trial many years earlier; he had been asked to give a testimony. 

Among the deceased’s belongings was a signet ring fashioned in the shape of two intertwined snakes biting each other’s tails. He revisited his unconscious memory of this in his dream and saw the chemical structure, a six-layered arrangement composed of carbon and hydrogen suspended like charms from a bracelet.

Second, psychobiologist Otto Loewi believed that the slowing of the heart was caused by a chemical rather than electrical stimulation. He tried several experiments, but wasn’t able to demonstrate this. 

One night, he had a dream about how to do it, and he woke up and went to the lab. He set up two frog hearts, stimulated the vagus nerve of the first heart, and drew off some of the fluid surrounding the heart. 

He added that fluid to the fluid surrounding the heart of the second frog: That heart slowed down. We now know that acetylcholine was the chemical released by the nerve cell stimulation of the first frog’s heart, and that caused the slowing of the second frog’s heart when it was applied to that heart.

In the third example, William Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford University, gave his students this riddle: “Consider the letters H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O. Now, this sequence should suggest one word. What is that word?” 

Some students got it right away. Other ones didn’t, and he asked them to dream about it and come in the next day and tell him about their dreams. The students dreamed of hunting sharks, skin diving, and being caught in a heavy rain. 

Does that give you a hint? Dement was referring to the chemical formula for water. H2O is the answer, which is the letters H to O in the sequence.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Richard Restak is Clinical Professor of Neurology at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. He earned his MD from Georgetown University School of Medicine. Professor Restak also maintains an active private practice in neurology and neuropsychiatry in Washington, D.C.