How sleep makes your mind more creative

It’s a tried and tested technique used by writers and poets, but can psychology explain why first moments after waking can be among our most imaginative?

It is 6.06am and I’m typing this in my pyjamas. I awoke at 6.04am, walked from the bedroom to the study, switched on my computer and got to work immediately. This is unusual behaviour for me. However, it’s a tried and tested technique for enhancing creativity, long used by writers, poets and others, including the inventor Benjamin Franklin. And psychology research appears to back this up, providing an explanation for why we might be at our most creative when our minds are still emerging from the realm of sleep.

The best evidence we have of our mental state when we’re asleep is that strange phenomenon called dreaming. Much remains unknown about dreams, but one thing that is certain is that they are weird. Also listening to other people’s dreams can be deadly boring. They go on and on about how they were on a train, but it wasn’t a train, it was a dinner party, and their brother was there, as well as a girl they haven’t spoken to since they were nine, and… yawn. To the dreamer this all seems very important and somehow connected. To the rest of us it sounds like nonsense, and tedious nonsense at that.

Yet these bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.

No wonder some people value the immediate, post-sleep, dreamlike mental state – known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state – so highly. It allows them to infuse their waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic. Later in the day, waking consciousness assumes complete control, which is a good thing as it allows us to go about our day evaluating situations, making plans, pursuing goals and dealing rationally with the world. Life would be challenging indeed if we were constantly hallucinating, believing the impossible or losing sense of what we were doing like we do when we’re dreaming. But perhaps the rational grip of daytime consciousness can at times be too strong, especially if your work could benefit from the feckless, distractible, inconsistent, manic, but sometimes inspired nature of its rebellious sleepy twin.

Scientific methods – by necessity methodical and precise – might not seem the best of tools for investigating sleep consciousness. Yet in 2007 Matthew Walker, now of the University of California at Berkeley, and colleagues carried out a study that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or “remote associates” as psychologists call them.

Under the inference

Subjects were presented with pairs of six abstract patterns A, B, C, D, E and F. Through trial and error they were taught the basics of a hierarchy, which dictated they should select A over B, B over C, C over D, D over E, and E over F. The researchers called these the “premise pairs”. While participants learnt these during their training period, they were not explicitly taught that because A was better than B, and B better than C, that they should infer A to be better than C, for example. This hidden order implied relationships, described by Walker as “inference pairs”, were designed to mimic the remote associates that drive creativity.

Participants who were tested 20 minutes after training got 90% of premise pairs but only around 50% of inference pairs right – the same fraction you or I would get if we went into the task without any training and just guessed.

Those tested 12 hours after training again got 90% for the premise pairs, but 75% of inference pairs, showing the extra time had allowed the nature of the connections and hidden order to become clearer in their minds.

But the real success of the experiment was a contrast in the performances of one group trained in the morning and then re-tested 12 hours later in the evening, and another group trained in the evening and brought back for testing the following morning after having slept. Both did equally well in tests of the premise pairs. The researchers defined inferences that required understanding of two premise relationships as easy, and those that required three or more as hard. So, for example, A being better than C, was labelled as easy because it required participants to remember that A was better than B and B was better than C. However understanding that A was better than D meant recalling A was better than B, B better than C, and C better than D, and so was defined as hard.

When it came to the harder inferences, people who had a night’s sleep between training and testing got a startling 93% correct, whereas those who’d been busy all day only got 70%.

The experiment illustrates that combining what we know to generate new insights requires time, something that many might have guessed. Perhaps more revealingly it also shows the power of sleep in building remote associations. Making the links between pieces of information that our daytime rational minds see as separate seems to be easiest when we’re offline, drifting through the dreamworld.

It is this function of sleep that might also explain why those first moments upon waking can be among our most creative. Dreams may seem weird, but just because they don’t make sense to your rational waking consciousness doesn’t make them purposeless. I was at my keyboard two minutes after waking up in an effort to harness some dreamworld creativity and help me write this column – memories of dreams involving trying to rob a bank with my old chemistry teacher, and playing tennis with a racket made of spaghetti, still tinging the edges of my consciousness.

This is my BBC Future column from last week. The original is here. I had the idea for the column while drinking coffee with Helen Mort. Caffeine consumption being, of course, another favourite way to encourage creativity!

Neuroscience and its place in the social world

This is the first of three posts that will cover three important books about how the science of mind, brain and mental health, interfaces with society at large.

First off, I want to discuss an excellent book called Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind published this year by sociologists of neuroscience Nikolas Rose and Joelle M. Abi-Rached.

You may be wondering why we need a social study of neuroscience but it becomes clear when we think of how neuroscience has become important.

It is not just due to what has been discovered. Neuroscience research itself, is only driven in part by scientific discovery.

In the main part, it is driven by a complex mix of politics, business, health care needs and public popularity. That’s what provides the funds and makes the scientific discovery possible and this only moderately, some would say weakly, relates to how far we ‘advance’ in terms of learning.

There is also a common idea that discoveries from psychology and neuroscience form the basis of interventions or changes to society, but much of the time, discoveries from psychology and neuroscience are co-opted to justify changes based on social values.

Here’s a really good example from p196 from the chapter on ‘The Antisocial Brain’ that discusses how the neuroscience of plasticity, the adolescent brain and child psychopathology has been used to justify family interventions.

By way of the brain, then, we reach a conclusion that does not differ greatly from arguments reaching back to the late nineteenth century about the effects of the early years on later propensities to problematic conduct.

From Mary Carpenter’s campaigns for colonies for dangerous and perishing children, through the social problem group and “the submerged ten percent” in the early twentieth century, via the mental hygiene movement in the 1930s, and arguments for setting up child welfare services in the years after the Second World War, to the contentious concept of the “cycle of deprivation” in the 1970s, and the interventions of the Head Start program to the Sure Start program – we find repeated arguments that one should minimize a host of social ills, including criminal and antisocial conduct, by governing the child through the family.

In each generation, unsurprisingly, these arguments are made on the basis of whatever happens to be the current mode of objectivity about the development of children – habits, the will, instinct theory, psychoanalysis, and today the brain.

Each time, the scientific programme is received as if it is a new approach to the problem of child deprivation and delinquency, when the success of these programmes lies precisely in the fact that they are largely the same. In this case, based on the idea that the family is the primary point of responsibility and intervention for poor adolescent behaviour.

Similarly, the success of neuroscientific approaches to problems often depends on how acceptable the implications would seem to potential funders because the money has usually to be agreed before significant lines of inquiry can be started.

This is why non-medical behavioural genetics research gets such a hard time. It’s not that it’s necessarily worse science in terms of its empirical methods but it reminds people of unsavoury practices like eugenics that run counter to prevailing values.

Neuro tracks exactly these sorts of interactions through history and between prevailing current interests. It is also brilliant technically, however, and you will actually learn a great deal about neuroscience methods from the book.

From the history and development of brain scanning techniques, to psychiatric drugs, to the rhetorical role of animal models in understanding mental illness, to how our notion of ourselves is changing in light of advances in brain sciences – it’s remarkably wide in scope.

Sociology is famous for its gobbledebook jargon, and this book has none of this, but its only drawback is that it is, in the end, an academic book and is sometimes written without much thought for the general reader.

But if you can tolerate the academic language, it is essential reading. If you want to understand neuroscience – rather than just facts about neuroscience – Neuro is probably one of the most important books you could read.

And the same goes if you are a neuroscientist or just interested in how we, as a society, are integrating the study of the brain into how we live.

Next in this three-part Mind Hacks series on science and society – Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma.

Link to more details about Neuro.

Extending new senses through implanted magnets

In 2006, journalist Quinn Norton had a magnet implanted in her finger so she could ‘sense’ magnetic fields.

An article on the ABC Radio National website shows how this simple concept has been taken to its next level by the body modification community to find new ways of integrating magnetic fields into our senses.

Before I was prepped to have a magnet inserted in my fingertip, I had a conversation with my piercer, Kyla Fae, about placement…

I had thought that the only possibility was the finger, but apparently there are many fleshy parts of the body that are viable placement options.

‘I haven’t performed any in genitals, but I’m well aware of people with them,’ said Ms Fae.

‘If you’ve got a magnet in your lady garden or whatever, it will vibrate away near big speakers.’..

Some enthusiasts are also starting to get magnets that act as mini speakers implanted next to their ear. All it takes is a magnetic coil disguised as a necklace, an amplifier and MP3 player to have music piped straight to your brain.

Now imagine that in an MRI scanner. Fast Spin Echo sequence for the win.

Link to ‘Taking body modification to the extreme’.

Listening for the voices of the dead

I’ve got an article in The Observer about our tendency to perceive meaning where there is none and how this inadvertently popped up in one of the strangest episodes in the history of psychology.

The article discuss the work of psychologist Konstantīns Raudive who began to believe that he could hear the voices of the dead amid the hiss of radio static – after, it must be said, much re-recording and amplification of the samples.

He wrote a 1971 book called Breakthrough where he explained his technique which was even accompanied by a flexidisc that has lots of not very convincing examples of the dead speaking through noise. You can listen to it on YouTube if you’re so inclined.

He gained widespread media attention but subsequent scientific studies found that everyone was hearing something different amid the static, making it one of the most well-know examples of illusory meaning or pareidolia of its time.

However, the experience of illusory meaning has become widely studied for its relationship to magical thinking and hallucination but was even recently deployed as a practical tool for the assessment of dementia.

More in the full article at the link below. It’s been given a somewhat odd title but hopefully, it should be fairly self-explanatory.

Link to Observer article on illusory meaning.

The ‘unnamed feeling’ named ASMR

Here’s my BBC Future column from last week. It’s about the so-called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which didn’t have a name until 2010 and I’d never heard of until 2012. Now, I’m finding out that it is surprisingly common. The original is here.

It’s a tightening at the back of the throat, or a tingling around your scalp, a chill that comes over you when you pay close attention to something, such as a person whispering instructions. It’s called the autonomous sensory meridian response, and until 2010 it didn’t exist.

I first heard about the autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) from British journalist Rhodri Marsden. He had become mesmerised by intentionally boring videos he found on YouTube, things like people explaining how to fold towels, running hair dryers or role-playing interactions with dentists. Millions of people were watching the videos, reportedly for the pleasurable sensations they generated.

Rhodri asked my opinion as a psychologist. Could this be a real thing? “Sure,” I said. If people say they feel it, it has to be real – in some form or another. The question is what kind of real is it? Are all these people experiencing the same thing? Is it learnt, or something we are born with? How common is it? Those are the kind of questions we’d ask as psychologists. But perhaps the most interesting thing about the ASMR is what happened to it before psychologists put their minds to it.

Presumably the feeling has existed for all of human history. Each person discovered the experience, treasured it or ignored it, and kept the feeling to themselves. That there wasn’t a name for it until 2010 suggests that most people who had this feeling hadn’t talked about it. It’s amazing that it got this far without getting a name. In scientific terms, it didn’t exist.

But then, of course, along came the 21st Century and, like they say, even if you’re one in a million there’s thousands of you on the internet. Now there’s websites, discussion forums, even a Wikipedia page. And a name. In fact, many names – “Attention Induced Euphoria”, “braingasm”, or “the unnamed feeling” are all competing labels that haven’t caught on in the same way as ASMR.


This points to something curious about the way we create knowledge, illustrated by a wonderful story about the scientific history of meteorites. Rocks falling from the sky were considered myths in Europe for centuries, even though stories of their fiery trails across the sky, and actual rocks, were widely, if irregularly reported. The problem was that the kind of people who saw meteorites and subsequently collected them tended to be the kind of people who worked outdoors – that is, farmers and other country folk. You can imagine the scholarly minds of the Renaissance didn’t weigh too heavily on their testimonies. Then in 1794 a meteorite shower fell on the town of Siena in Italy. Not only was Siena a town, it was a town with a university. The testimony of the townsfolk, including well-to-do church ministers and tourists, was impossible to deny and the reports written up in scholarly publications. Siena played a crucial part in the process of myth becoming fact.

Where early science required authorities and written evidence to turn myth into fact, ASRM shows that something more democratic can achieve the same result. Discussion among ordinary people on the internet provided validation that the unnamed feeling was a shared one. Suddenly many individuals who might have thought of themselves as unusual were able to recognise that they were a single group, with a common experience.

There is a blind spot in psychology for individual differences. ASMR has some similarities with synaesthesia (the merging of the senses where colours can have tastes, for example, or sounds produce visual effects). Both are extremes of normal sensation, which exist for some individuals but not others. For many years synaesthesia was a scientific backwater, a condition viewed as unproductive to research, perhaps just the product of people’s imagination rather than a real sensory phenomenon. This changed when techniques were developed that precisely measured the effects of synaesthesia, demonstrating that it was far more than people’s imagination. Now it has its own research community, with conferences and papers in scientific journals.

Perhaps ASMR will go the same way. Some people are certainly pushing for research into it. As far as I know there are no systematic scientific studies on ASMR. Since I was quoted in that newspaper article, I’ve been contacted regularly by people interested in the condition and wanting to know about research into it. When people hear that their unnamed feeling has a name they are drawn to find out more, they want to know the reality of the feeling, and to connect with others who have it. Something common to all of us wants to validate our inner experience by having it recognised by other people, and in particular by the authority of science. I can’t help – almost all I know about ASMR is in this column you are reading now. For now all we have is a name, but that’s progress.

The Master and His Emissary

I’ve been struggling to understand Iain McGilchrist’s argument about the two hemispheres of the brain, as presented in his book “The Master and His Emissary” [1]. It’s an argument that takes you from neuroanatomy, through behavioural science to cultural studies [2]. The book is crammed with fascinating evidential trees, but I left it without a clear understanding of the overall wood. Watching this RSA Animate helped.

Basically, I think McGilchrist is attempting a neuroscientific rehabilitation of an essentially mystical idea: the map is not the territory, of the important of ends rather than just means [3]. Here’s a tabulation of functions and areas of focus that McGilchrist claims for the two hemispheres:

Left Right
Representation Perception
The Abstract The Concrete
Narrow focus Broad focus
Language Embodiment
Manipulation Experience (?)
Parts Wholes
Machines Life
The Static The Changing
Focus on the known Alertness for the novel
Consistency, familiarity, prediction Contradiction, novelty, surprise
A closed knowledge system An open knowledge system
(Urge after) Consistency (Urge after) Completeness
The Known The Unknown, The ineffable
The explicit The implicit
Generalisation Individuality/uniqueness
Particulars Context

A key idea – which is in the RSA Animate – is the idea of a ‘necessary distance’ from the world. By experiencing yourself as separate (but not totally detached) you are able to empathise with people, manipulate tools, reason on symbols etc. But, of course, there’s always the risk that you end up valuing the tools for their own sake, or believing in the symbol system you have created to understand the world.

From a cognitive neuroscience point of view, this is fair enough, by which I mean that if you are going to look into the (vast) literature on hemispheric specialisation and make some summary claims, as McGilchrist does, then these sort of claims are reasonable. You can enjoy one of the grand-daddies of split brain studies, Michael Gazzaniga, summarise his perspective, which isn’t that discordant, here [4].

From this foundation, McGilchrist goes on to diagnose a historical movement in our culture away from a balanced way of thinking and towards a ‘left brain’ dominated way of thinking. This, to me, also seems fair enough. Modernity does seem characterised by the ascendance of both instrumentalism and bureaucracy, both ‘leftish’ values in the McGilchristian framework.

It is worth noting that dual-systems theories, of which this is one, are perennially popular. McGilchrist is careful and explicit in rejecting the popular Reason vs Emotion distinction that has come to be associated with the two hemispheres. In this RSA report Divided Brain, Divided World, he briefly discusses how his theory relates to the automatic-deliberative distinction, as (for example) set out by Daniel Kahneman in his Thinking Fast and Slow. He says, briefly, that that distinction is orthogonal to the one he’s making; i.e. both hemispheres do automatic and controlled processing.

I was turned on to the book by Helen Mort, who writes a great blog about neuroscience and poetry which you can check out here: If you’re interested in reading more about psychology, divided selves and cultural shifts I recommend Timothy Wilson’s “Strangers to Ourselves” and Walter Ong’s “Orality and Literacy”.


[1] If you buy the paperback they’ve slimmed it down, at least in some editions, by leaving out the reference list at the end. Very frustrating.

[2] Fans of grand theories of hemispheric functioning and the relation to cultural evolution, make sure you check out Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind . Weirdly McGilchrist hardly references this book (noting merely that he is saying something completely different).

[3] And when I use the term ‘mystical’, that is a good thing, not a denigration.

[4] Gazzaniga, M. (2002). The split brain revisited. Scientific American, Special Editions: The Hidden Mind.

Moving through the waters of human attention

apollorobbinsThe New Yorker has an amazing article on pickpocket and illusionist Apollo Robbins that is packed with gems about attention, misdirection and sleight-of-hand.

Robbins is a self-taught but dedicated aficionado of human consciousness and has learnt the many ways in which our attention can be manipulated.

The article discusses how Robbins does many of his pickpocketing techniques but also discusses how he got into the business and how he has begun collaborating with cognitive scientists to help us understand scientifically what he has learnt artistically.

Robbins uses various metaphors to describe how he works with attention, talking about “surfing attention,” “carving up the attentional pie,” and “framing.” “I use framing the way a movie director or a cinematographer would,” he said. “If I lean my face close in to someone’s, like this”—he demonstrated—“it’s like a closeup. All their attention is on my face, and their pockets, especially the ones on their lower body, are out of the frame. Or if I want to move their attention off their jacket pocket, I can say, ‘You had a wallet in your back pocket—is it still there?’ Now their focus is on their back pocket, or their brain just short-circuits for a second, and I’m free to steal from their jacket.”

In fact, he jointly published a scientific study in 2011 based on his discovery that when something starts moving in a straight line people tend to look back to the origin of the movements, but if something moves in a curve they stay fixed on the object.

If you want to see Robbins in action, and it really is astounding, you can catch him in various videos on YouTube.

There’s even one where he explains how he does it in terms of the neuroscience of attention which is particularly good.

But don’t miss this New Yorker article, it’s both an entertaining and informative guide to a master of human attentional blindspots.

Link to New Yorker article ‘A Pickpocket’s Tale’.