Priming Your Subconscious for Creativity

Thomas Edison famously said, “Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.” What did he mean by that?  When we sleep, our subconscious brain continues to churn away, overseeing things like respiration and heartbeat.  But the subconscious does a great deal more, including strengthening memories by replaying and reconsolidating them while we sleep.

Edison, however, was getting at something different.  His suggestion is that we can  intentionally direct the power of the subconscious to solve problems and be creative during slow-wave-sleep (SWS, about 20% of sleep time) even though we are not conscious of the process.  I call this subconscious priming.  Karl Staib wrote a nice piece on the topic here.

I am sure you have had the sensation that the answer to a problem simply popped into your head when you weren’t thinking about it. You may not have questioned where the answer came from, but it came from the workings of your subconscious, a tireless co-conspirator that is with you all of the time. When you are in non-REM deep sleep the subconscious brain takes over the whole show and does wonderful things.  Subconscious priming is not psycho voodoo.  Instead, it is a wonderful tool you can apply to many aspects of life, including the creative process.  It takes some will power, practice and a little work to harness it, but subconscious priming is well worth the effort.

I ask my students at Stanford’s design school to try this simple method-

Before going to bed, think about what you want to accomplish. Look at it from as many points of view as you can think of and ask yourself lots of questions about it. In Edison’s words, make some “requests.” Be specific in framing your requests, this will help lead to clear answers. Write your requests down. While you’re sleeping, your subconscious will get to work.  You are unlikely so see results right away, so be persistent.  Put some positive spin on it by imagining how good it is going to feel when the issue is finally resolved.  Then let go of it and enjoy your sleep.

The request to your subconscious can be anything relating to your personal or professional life, or even a problem with a design project. Try to visualize yourself in the requested scenario and keep at it every night until your imagination becomes reality.  This is just the kind of thing the combined subconscious and conscious mind is good at.

Within ten minutes of wakening go back to your list of questions and write down whatever comes up. The goal here is to get your conscious and subconscious together in the creative act.  Your conscious brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, is most active and creative immediately following sleep.  But while you sleep, your subconscious brain is making novel contextual and temporal connections that will be available to add to your conscious thought once you wake up.  It is the new connections that enliven creativity.  So take advantage of this prime time for creativity before the daily routine sets in.  In other words, put your smartphone aside and don’t pay any attention to notifications or messages for ten minutes or so.  With practice you can make this your morning meditation.  It is journaling with a purpose. To be sure, you’ll need practice and it may take several attempts before you become proficient. But with consistency, you can become fluent and automatic at achieving creative and intuitive bursts. Who knows what you might invent?

A couple of tricks from neuroscience might help to augment the process of subconscious priming by increasing sleep efficiency.  Melatonin, which many people take for jetlag, extends the duration of slow wave sleep episodes and tends to prevent waking in the night.  Drugs that activate receptors for the neurotransmitter GABA, as well as inhibitors of GABA uptake, have a similar effect and may someday be useful in treating sleep disturbances and possibly increasing memory consolidation, as well.