Creativity: What If You Sleep On It?

The nature of my work is such that I spend a good deal of time on the road. Not just traveling, say to spend a few days at a conference or in meetings, but actually on the road, driving from here to there to investigate an accident scene or inspect a home damaged by fire or interview a witness. And because of the area in which I work (a sparsely populated region in a sparsely populated state) that can sometimes mean I spend hours in transit for work that might take 15 minutes.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove three hours, had a meeting with an attorney that lasted 30 minutes, then got back in the car and drove home. The idea of losing six hours of productivity during an extremely busy season in order to drive to that town where thousands flock every summer to prove to themselves that yes, Virginia, there is such a place as the Corn Palace, troubled me. Then someone suggested that I daydream along the way about a writing project I’m working on. I don’t normally favor daydreaming–there are so many other things I could be doing with my time. But as a captive behind the wheel, what else could I do? So I turned off BBC News and set about to daydreaming.

As my mind wandered the open prairie rolling by for mile after endless mile, a fanciful story unfolded that I am still working to get down on paper, a story that went off in directions that I not only hadn’t expected, but hadn’t believed possible. It surprised me that my thoughts, most often concrete and logical, had gone the direction they had.

In his book, A More Beautiful Question, Warren Berger makes the case for the creative work that can be done by the unconscious mind:

A growing body of research describes what happens when we allow the unconscious mind to work on a problem. Writing recently on the site Big Think, Sam McNerney pulled together a number of recent studies showing that sleeping can help people to perform better at solving difficult problems requiring a creative solution. (McNerney quoted an old John Steinbeck line: “A difficult problem at night is resolved in the morning after the committee of sleep has worked on it.”)

Sleeping and daydreaming allow the brain to short-circuit itself, in effect, and help us reach creative solutions we might never have considered otherwise. Berger explains how this works.

Similar research exists on daydreaming and its value in producing original, creative ideas. And everyone knows about the cliched (but only because it’s true) idea-in-the-shower moment. The same neurological forces seem to be at work in all of these instances. The sleeping or relaxed brain cuts off distractions and turns inward, as the right hemisphere becomes more active leading to periods of greater connectivity.

At the poetry website I help manage, we often recommend Artist Dates to fuel creativity. According to Berger, walking, long drives (to the Corn Palace, if need be), even doodling or going to visit a museum can create enough of a distraction for the brain.

The point about connective inquiry–and the What If stage in general–is that when you take on a challenging question, if you spend time with that question, your mind will keep working on it.

So what if you tried this? What if you took a new what if question with you on a long drive or a walk in the park, or even to a local museum? What if you let your mind wander around off its leash? Or what if you just went to sleep?

This is a modified reprint of a post that originally appeared at Tweetspeak Poetry with the title A More Beautiful Question: What If You Sleep On It and is printed with permission. Photo by Jodene E, sourced via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top