Why the best ideas sometimes come in your sleep


The mind works best when you give it a rest, writes Phil Dobson

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Have you ever had a good idea in the shower? Do your best notions come to you when you go for a walk? Ever woken up in the night with a clever way out of a tricky situation? We focus on working smarter, getting ever more done, yet it’s often only when we stop working and our minds start to wander, that solutions present themselves.

Your creative brain is a formidable beast, but the conditions under which it thrives are different to the conditions under which we tend to work. Einstein said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, and the rational mind a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.”

Let’s explore this gift with a view to gaining applicable insights into how to get more from your naturally creative brain, as an individual and in your team. Creativity is a skill that improves with practice, and it follows a process that can be developed at every stage.

Step 1 – Experience 

Much like working productively, becoming more creative can be as simple as establishing the right conditions. The best first step to developing your creativity is to broaden your experiential palette. A useful definition of creativity is the ability to form relationships between unrelated concepts. The broader your palette, the more unrelated concepts you have to work with.

It is interesting to note that Nobel prize-winning scientists are more than 20 times more likely than the average person to perform as actors, dancers or magicians; they are ten times more likely to write poetry, novels or plays; and twice as likely to play a musical instrument. This suggests that being creative is therefore less about single-minded specialization, and more about cultivating interests in lots of different things.

You: Learn new things, read broadly, demonstrate curiosity, explore and broaden your experience; become the polymath.

Your team: Collaborate and embrace diversity. A group of people’s collective experience will likely be greater than any single person’s.


Step 2 – Incubation 

Creative departments are often forced to work to tight deadlines, which can stifle creativity. Ideas need time to incubate and your brain needs time to form new associations.

Your brain is particularly good at making connections while you sleep. The history of science is littered with discoveries we owe to people’s unconscious nighttime processing: Dmitri Mendeleev saw the elements arrange themselves in his sleep to form the periodic table; August Kekulé dreamt the arrangement of atoms that make up the benzene molecule.

You: Be wary of coming up with quick solutions in the hope of demonstrating ‘responsiveness’. Over time, a better solution often presents itself.

Your team: Allow people time to work on important problems. Present information sooner rather than later, and give people the option to ‘sleep on it’, if possible.

Step 3 – Question

Too often, people try to identify a solution before they really understand the nature of the problem. If I asked you to build a bridge across a road, you might brainstorm the best tools, materials, expertise. But a more valuable question would be ‘why do we need to get across?’

Einstein said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.”

You: Challenge your assumptions and reframe your problems. Before finding a solution, examine the problem in different ways until you establish what the problem really is.

Your team: Before running a ‘solutionorientated’ brainstorm, first spend ten minutes brainstorming only questions about the problem or challenge. Provide no answers. This will help challenge your assumptions. Once you have a better understanding of the problem, the solution will often present itself.

Step 4 – Illumination

Divergent and convergent thinking are two commonly accepted forms of thinking. Divergent thinking involves coming up with lots of ideas; convergent thinking involves deciding on a single answer. Divergent thinking reflects Einstein’s take on creativity as “intelligence having fun”. Convergent thinking is more akin to how writer William Plomer describes creativity as “the power to connect the seemingly unconnected”.

To get the most from divergent thinking exercises such as brainstorming, go for as many ideas as possible, defer judgment, think unrestrictedly and capture everything. It often helps to alter your perspective, either by going somewhere unusual to brainstorm, or by shifting your ‘perceptual position’: approaching the problem through someone else’s eyes. This can be particularly useful when considering business strategy. What would your customer want? What would your client say? What would your employee think? To improve your divergent thinking, it helps to increase your cognitive activity.

Yet this is where our over-reliance on logic, rationality and conscious cognition becomes apparent. We’ve already acknowledged that we have ideas in the shower and when we go for a walk – and this is not the result of increased cognitive activity. Solutions present themselves in these contexts only when we stop thinking about the problem and reduce cognitive activity.

To understand why, and to gain insight into how to grow more creative, it helps to look at the neuroscience of ‘aha! moments’. Flashes of insight are associated with a spike of highfrequency electrical activity in your brain, typically preceded by ‘alpha brainwaves’.

Alpha brainwaves are associated with a calm, relaxed, open mind – not a mind engaged in active cognition. Research suggests that the more you think about the problem, the more you inhibit the answer. By contrast, having a bath or going for a walk may result in a shift in your brain state that facilitate ‘aha! moments’.

Use brainstorming techniques when you need to generate lots of ideas or potential solutions. But when you need to make sense of it all, find the missing link, see the big picture and the interrelatedness of it all, or require a single answer; slow down your brainwaves to alpha. To do this, you need to stop working on the problem.

You: Have a break and immerse yourself in something different. Go for a walk or do some light exercise. Learn how to meditate, as this can help shift your brainwaves into a more creative state.

Your team: Create a culture that acknowledges and appreciates your creative brain. Don’t ask people to do their creative work at their desks, if you know their best ideas come when they are in a park, or late at night over a glass of wine. Encourage people to take more breaks, and ensure they have lunch breaks. Not only will this help them maintain their energy levels and cognitive performance throughout the day, it might also provide the conditions for their next innovation.

Step 5 – Action

Now implement. Creativity only ever became innovation through action.


Phil Dobson is founder of BrainWorkshops and author of upcoming  The Brain Book. He turns insights from neuroscience and cognitive and behavioural psychology into applicable skills for the workplace

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