Burst of creativity in sleep’s ‘twilight zone’

woman smiling as she wakes up from sleep

Today, 18 March, is the 15th annual World Sleep Day. I must admit to not having heard about this event. Perhaps I slept through the first 14.

As tongue in cheek as that observation is, there’s probably a small kernel of truth to it, because for me sleep has rarely been an issue in my more than five decades on Earth.

For many, though, it is a serious problem that has a debilitating effect on their lives. The importance of sleep health as part of a healthy overall lifestyle was the reason for the founding of World Sleep Day in 2008.

Described as an awareness activity of the World Sleep Society, World Sleep Day is designed to advance sleep health worldwide.

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A new theme is adopted each year and the 2022 slogan is: “Quality sleep, sound mind, happy world.” The aim of the day is to highlight the vital role sleep plays in our overall health, and to find solutions for those who have trouble achieving a healthy amount of sleep.

The causes of disrupted sleep are many and varied, including sleep apnoea, advanced sleep phase disorder and anxiety to name but a few. For sufferers, the effect on their daily lives can be devastating.

For those lucky enough not to suffer sleep health problems, World Sleep Day can still hold significance in a number of ways. First, it can be a good opportunity to consider what those who do suffer may be going through.

Read: The sleep stage we get less of as we age

According to a report from the Sleep Health Foundation, an estimated 1.92 million Australians aged over 15 suffer from obstructive sleep apnoea, insomnia or restless leg syndrome. Even if you don’t suffer from any of those conditions, it’s highly likely someone close to you does.

World Sleep Day is also a good opportunity to reflect on the components of sleep and how little we understand of them.

Take, for instance, the semi-lucid period just before deep sleep. Some of the world’s greatest minds have tapped into the brain’s apparent potential for creativity during this period.

Artist Salvador Dalí would famously go to sleep holding a large key, which would drop into a metal plate just before he entered the deep sleep phase. The sound would wake him up and he would note any good ideas that had entered his head during his semi-lucid phase. Thomas Edison did a similar thing, holding a ball in each hand as he dozed off.

Read: Do sleep teas really work?

In a recent study published in Science, neuroscientists provided strong evidence to support the notions of creativity proposed by Dalí and Edison during this phase, through an experiment that featured a mathematical problem and a secret shortcut.

Mid-task, they were given a 20-minute break, asked to recline while hooked up to a polysomnography device (which measures a person’s state of wakefulness). Those who entered a semi-lucid ‘twilight’ period while reclining were far more likely to find the solution to the problem.

The study indicated that there is a brief but intense burst of creativity as we begin to drift into sleep.

What does all this tell us? It tells us that if we have a problem with sleep, we are not alone; if we don’t have a problem with sleep, we probably know someone who does, and, that sleep is a fascinating part of our lives that serves to remind us there are still many mysteries of our brain still to be unlocked.

That should give you plenty to think about tonight as you drift off at the end of World Sleep Day.

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Written by Andrew Gigacz

Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.

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