Have you ever found yourself on the brink of sleep, your mind running and jumping wildly like Mario trapped in an infinite plane of free-association? Like, maybe you’re thinking about apples before you drift off to sleep, and suddenly, you have this idea about how perception is just like cutting an apple in half - slice it vertically, and it yields a radically different pattern of visible seeds than a horizontal cut. It seems perfectly sensible in your estranged state. Maybe you even write it down before you’re fully awake. And then you get up, drink your morning coffee, pick up your notebook and read “Apples are sliced perception,” and you think, “What kind of bullshit is this?”
Most people don’t think twice about the strange places their thoughts go in the haze of sleep. Everyone has crazy dreams. Surely they don’t mean anything. But a few famous thinkers believed that the sleeping mind was the ultimate gateway to creativity, and the best waking minds were those well acquainted with their sleeping counterparts.
Thomas Edison used to take one second naps, what he called “twilight dreaming,” in order to open his mind and come up with solutions to his daily quandaries. In order to limit his sleeping time to one second, he would grab a hand full of ball bearings and sit back in a comfortable chair, resting his arm so that his hand was extended over the hard floor beneath him. Then, as soon as he drifted off, his hand would relax and the clattering ball bearings would wake him up. In the brief moment before the ball bearings hit the floor, he claimed he could dream up some of his best ideas.
How did Edison actually make sense of the disparate ideas that are unleashed in sleep? Well, probably the most useful part of his technique is that he stopped actively trying to solve his problem. By drifting off to sleep, he stopped demanding results from his mind altogether, letting the product of thousands and thousands of years of cognitive evolution roam free without trying to bottle neck his mental capacity into a single task.
Sometimes when you stop thinking about thinking, your mind does things you didn’t know you were capable of. A 2003 German study illuminated this idea. The study gave subjects what is called a remote associate test, which was developed in 1962 to test creativity. In this test, subjects are shown three words, and they’re asked to provide a fourth word that is associated with the first three. For instance: law, birthday, swim. The fourth word would be suit. Or, for sun, back and television, the fourth word is set.
But now and then they’d slip in three words that shared no association. And what they discovered is that their subjects could detect whether or not a triad of words had a fourth word in common before they’d even solved the test. They were able to sense the presence of a solution, or the lack of one, before wasting their time trying to find an answer that wasn’t there.
Similarly, Edison must have understood that his unconscious mind was capable of saving himself a lot of fruitless effort. Like Shakespeare before him, he demonstrated that he effortlessly understood what social scientists would arduously discover many years later with PhDs and government grants.
If your creative well is dried up and you’re looking for a new source of inspiration, give the one second nap a try. Let me know how it works out. And if you come up with anything profitable, please consider adding me to your will.