Leveraging Sleep to Spark Creativity: A Game-Changing Method by MIT and Harvard for Enhanced Creativity via Targeted Dream Incubation

by Henrik Andersen
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MIT and Harvard scientists have unveiled evidence showing individuals exhibit heightened creativity when awakened during the initial stages of sleep and guided to dream about a specific subject. This process, employing a tool known as Dormio, led to a 43% increase in creative output compared to those who rested without particular dream guidance.

A recent study demonstrates that people become more innovative after waking from the earliest sleep phase, particularly when they are directed to dream about a specific subject.

Encountering an intractable problem? A brief nap might just be the answer, suggests a study by researchers from MIT and Harvard Medical School.

The researchers revealed that during the phase where one oscillates between wakefulness and sleep, commonly referred to as sleep onset, the creative mind is exceptionally productive. For the first time, they demonstrated that when individuals are prompted to dream about a specific subject during this sleep phase, they significantly outperform in three creativity tasks related to that subject.

“Prompting dreams about a topic during sleep onset can result in dream experiences that can later be harnessed for these creative tasks,” explains Kathleen Esfahany, an MIT senior and one of the study’s lead authors.

The Dormio system tracks a subject’s transition into sleep and then disrupts it. The subject hovers in a semi-lucid state where dreams can be guided toward a specific topic. Credit: Fluid Interfaces Group, MIT Media Lab

This prompt, termed “targeted dream incubation,” resulted in more innovative stories from people who napped with a specific dream guide than from those who napped without one or those who remained awake. The researchers suggest that the brain makes more extensive connections between disparate concepts during this dream state, thereby enhancing creativity.

“Accessing this brain state can augment creativity in your waking life,” comments Adam Haar Horowitz, a postdoc at the MIT Media Lab and a study lead author. The study was recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.

The principal investigators who spearheaded this study are Robert Stickgold, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Pattie Maes, a professor at MIT’s Media Lab. Tomás Vega Gálvez, a former MIT graduate student in Maes’ research group, also contributed to the study.

Harnessing Creativity

Historically, anecdotal evidence has suggested that the earliest sleep stage, also known as N1 or hypnagogia, provides a fertile environment for innovative ideas. In 2021, a study from the Paris Brain Institute supplied experimental evidence supporting the idea that sleep onset boosts this type of creative insight.

In this semi-lucid sleep state called hypnagogia, we start dreaming before fully falling unconscious. Dormio, a low-cost, open-source sleep tracking technology, is designed to tap into this state. Credit: Oscar Rosello

The MIT researchers were interested in expanding this finding to realms more directly related to creativity, such as storytelling. They also wanted to investigate the possibility of steering the content of people’s dreams and how such directed content might affect the creative process.

Horowitz, along with fellow MIT Media Lab students, developed a device known as Dormio for targeted dream incubation. The device, which includes a glove that records three physiological sleep markers—changes in muscle tone, heart rate, and skin conductance—relays them to a smartphone or laptop application.

Upon entering the N1 state, the application prompts the wearer to dream about a specific topic. After a few minutes, as the wearer begins transitioning into the next sleep stage, the application wakes them up, queries them about their dream, and records their answer.

Esfahany, a major in computation and cognition—a program

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