Better Sleep On That

One of the roadblocks to designing better libraries can be our inability to creatively explore ways to achieve goals in non-traditional ways – or with radically different ideas. As past research has shown, as decision makers and idea generators we humans tend to rely on methods that have worked well for us in the past. The problems is that our old, reliable ways of getting things done may no longer be suitable for new times and new situations. Wouldn’t it be great if there was a simple way to open up our minds to fresh and untried strategies that would offer creative solutions.

A technique for doing just that may be closer at hand than we think. It’s called sleep. According to a recent NYT article, new research is showing that sleep – or the period directly after sleep – is one in which creative ideas and solutions can bubble up to the surface from the recesses of our minds. According to the article:

While traditional stories about sleep and creativity emphasize vivid dreams hastily transcribed upon waking, recent research highlights the importance of letting ideas marinate and percolate. “Sleep makes a unique contribution,” explains Mark Jung-Beeman, a psychologist at Northwestern University who studies the neural bases of insight and creative cognition. Some sort of incubation period, in which a person leaves an idea for a while, is crucial to creativity. During the incubation period, sleep may help the brain process a problem. “When you think you’re not thinking about something, you probably are,” says Dr. Jung-Beeman, who has a doctorate in experimental psychology.

Scientists are learning more about the function of sleep. Once thought to be mostly about resting the body, current theories suggest that our bodies could move endlessly as long as we had the necessary energy but that it’s the brain that needs regular rest in order to process information and help us integrate it in ways that enable us to manage our existence. We could all likely share a story of waking up and just having a great idea pop into our heads in the shower. We may think it’s the shower but it may actually be our sleep refreshed brain feeding us the solution to a problem. Then again, there are other creativity theorists who believe that any period in which our mind is set free from routine activity and allowed to roam freely we may experience a bolt of genius – or just a simply good idea. My preferred method is a visit to the campus fitness center where I think about anything but work-related matters. It’s the post-workout shower where my best ideas are likely to emerge. Some of the toughest challenges are the type where an opposable mind is needed to develop a good solution to resolve two conflicting ideas that stand in opposition to each other. I can recall several instances where potential ideas emerged either right after sleep or an afternoon workout.

All this new knowledge about the value of sleep for priming our creativity should change our thinking about sleeping on the job. As the NTY article suggests, it may actually benefit organizations to promote daily naptime for staff. Some companies are even investing in hi-tech napping pods. It is ideas such as these that influence my thinking about how to create a library organization that is constantly engaged in the design of a better library. Encouraging library workers to take a 15-minute nap may sound outrageous, but it may just be the sort of radical thinking we need.