Ernest Hemingway believed that you should always end your writing for the day with an unfinished sentence, such as, "She threw open the windows only to find...". Leave your writing hanging in mid-sentence and then sleep on it, he suggested, so that you'll know where to pick up the next morning, but also so your subconscious can work on it, perhaps even dream about it, overnight. Research suggests Hemingway's advice was bang on.
A study reported in the journal Nature found that when participants worked on a problem and then slept overnight before working it out, it doubled the likelihood of solving the problem. Other studies have found that even when it comes to rats learning mazes, the rats that sleep between training intervals learn much faster. Sleep helps us process information we've learned during the day, strengthen our memory of what we learned, and it allows our subconscious to ruminate
over problems and sometimes offer up invaluable insights.
Jack Nicklaus believes a dream helped him correct his golf swing. Paul McCartney credits a dream as the source of the song Yesterday and was inspired to write Yellow Submarine during a state of hypnagogia (the transitional state between sleep and wakefulness).
Here are a few ways you can increase the odds of sparking a creative insight overnight:
- Experts suggest writing down a problem you are working on in the form of a simple question, thinking about it for a few minutes before going to bed, then writing down whatever comes to mind when you first wake up.
- Keep an idea journal near your bed at all times, both to make sure you capture any ideas but also to let your subconscious know you're on the outlook for insights.
- Okay, so this one's a tad specific and maybe a little out there: Research at the Radboud University Behavioral Science Institute in the Netherlands found that creativity improved when sleepers got a whiff of orange-vanilla scent before going to sleep! (Hmm - idea for a new line of pillow products?)
- Read something before bed. Not only does our memory work best when we learn something just before going to sleep, reading can offer a source of inspiration for our brains to work with overnight. And reading something related to an issue you are wrestling with might get the creative juices flowing in the direction you want.