Editor's Note: This article is part of "10 Ways To Be A Better Employee In 2015." Read the full list here.
Imagine hacking into your own brain while you sleep, finding unrelated details or ideas that were never connected and mashing them up to get a solution to whatever problem has been wracking your brain. It can and has been done.
What you do before bed can play a role in how primed your brain is for this kind of creativity. Research has repeatedly found that sleep improves people's ability to come up with creative solutions to problems. Psychologists from UC San Diego found that REM sleep improves the creative process more than any other state—asleep or awake. And often the solutions to problems come to us when we are sleeping because of a phenomenon cognitive scientists call "pattern recognition."
This happens when the brain is in a relaxed enough state to create new connections and neural pathways—also known as neuroplasticity. This explains why great ideas often come to you in the shower, on a walk, lying in bed at night, or even sleeping. The brain is relaxed enough to enable those new connections to form.
The brain uses two separate pattern recognition systems – an extrinsic and an intrinsic one, writes Steven Kotler in Psychology Today. The explicit system relies on logic and rules and is tied to our conscious awareness. We can explain it verbally. The intrinsic system, on the other hand, relies on intuition, skill and experience. You can't really describe it in words. Kotler explains:
When the explicit system is involved, the neurons that are talking to one another are usually found in close proximity. When the implicit system is at work, far flung corners of the brain are chit-chatting. Creativity … depends on those broader implicit networks putting together information in new ways.
But how can you optimize your sleep to help hack into your creative mind? There are things that can be done before bed to help you get there. "The secret, if there is one, is just about being able to relax enough for the intrinsic system to do its stuff," says Kotler. "This is a pretty simple mind hack used by a lot of creatives." Here are three ways to get there.
Research has shown that memory works best when something is learned shortly before sleep. Fill your brain with new ideas and inspiration before bed and you give the mind some work to do while you're asleep.
Reading before bed—whether it's fiction, a business book, or something that inspires and informs your work—is an effective way to prime your brain for creative thinking. You may just wake up with a fresh new idea you didn't have when you went to bed the night before.
When you're getting ready for bed or lying with the lights out—literally ask yourself the question you've been wrestling with in your creative work. You can do this aloud or to yourself. "It is pretty easy to ask the intrinsic system a question," writes Kotler. "Out loud or silently, doesn’t seem to matter."
Triggering your brain to think about a challenging problem just before bed can help your intrinsic system get a boost in the right direction. The key is to then do something to help you forget about asking the question—read or focus on your breathing, perhaps—to help that part of your brain that works quietly in the background rev up.
Lucid dreaming is essentially dreaming while being conscious of the fact that you're having a dream. Why is this useful to hacking into your creative mind? "You could stay in that dream and then use it to explore impossible realities somehow," according to psychophysiologist and lucid dream expert, Stephen LaBerge.
Getting to that lucid dreaming state takes practice and training your brain to recognize when you're dreaming. A few ways to do this involve asking yourself throughout the day whether you're dreaming, so that you'll subconsciously remember to do the same when you're in a dream state. Waking up in the middle of the night, remembering the dream you were having and then going back to sleep, conscious that you were having this dream can also help you enter a lucid dream state. LaBerge calls these steps the mnemonic induction of lucid dreaming or MILD technique.
"It would give you a great deal of freedom," he says of lucid dreaming. "You're limited not by the usual laws of physics and laws of society and other external constraints on you as we are limited greatly in waking life. You are limited only by what the limits of the mind might be."