The German chemist Friedrich Kekule claimed to have intuited the chemical structure of the benzene ring after falling asleep in his chair and dreaming of an ouroboros (a serpent biting its own tail). He’s certainly not the only person to have discovered a flash insight after waking from a good sleep. In science alone, many breakthroughs were apparently borne of a decent snooze, including Mendeleyev’s creation of the Periodic Table and Loewi’s experiments on the transmission of nervous signals through chemical messengers.
Most of us have tried sleeping on a difficult problem before and using an elegant experiment, Denise Cai from the University of California in San Diego has shown that this old technique really does have merit to it. She found that our brains are better at integrating disparate pieces of information after a short bout of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep – a deep, dream-rich slumber that involves a rapid fluttering of the eyes. Cai thinks that REM sleep catalyses the creative process by allowing the brain to form connections between unrelated ideas.
Cai is by no means the first person to link sleep or dreaming to creative revelations, but she is one of the few to test it directly through experiments. She asked 77 people to complete a task, where they were given a list of three words and had to find a fourth that was linked to all three. For example, ‘cookie’, ‘heart’ and ‘sixteen’ are all associated with ‘sweet’. In each example of this ‘Remote Associates Test‘ (RAT), the missing fourth word has a different relationship to each of the three targets.
We encounter many of the colours in our lives under the same circumstances and as a result, we have come to associate certain colours with specific attributes. Red invokes thoughts of action, danger or mistakes because it is a common feature of warning signs and editorial ink. Blue, however, is a more soothing hue, and its presence in both sky and sea have connected it to peace and openness.
These associations aren’t trivial ones – they can affect the way we think. In a clever series of experiments, Ravi Mehta and Rui Zhu from the University of British Columbia found that red makes people averse to risks, more vigilant and more attentive to detail. Blue hues, on the other hand, encourage them to explore and try new things, and boosts creative thinking. These influences come through in tasks as simple as solving anagrams and memorising words, and as complex and realistic as creating a child’s toy.
To begin with, Mehta and Zhu checked that the associations they ascribed to the two colours were right. They asked people to list things they connect with different colours and found that 70% of their red associations were related to danger or mistakes, while 60% of their blue ones were to do with safety or peace. Idea confirmed, Mehta and Zhu went on to show that these feelings trigger different motivations – dangerous red says “Avoid,” while tranquil blue says “Approach.”