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When narcolepsy makes creative

Press release | 04 Jun 2019 - 9h00 | By INSERM PRESS OFFICE
Neurosciences, cognitives sciences, neurology and psychiatry | Public health

©Adi Goldstein/ Unsplash

Sleeping we make it more creative? The study of narcolepsy, which enjoy privileged access to REM sleep, could provide key information to understand this phenomenon. A team including doctors from the hospital Pitié-Salpêtrière AP-HP and researchers from Inserm, CNRS and Université Sorbonne within the Institute for Brain and Spinal Cord Disorders, in collaboration with a team University of Bologna in Italy, revealed the existence of a greater creativity in patients with narcolepsy. The results of the study suggest a link between a particular phase of sleep, REM sleep, and creative abilities. This important advance, published in the journal Brain May 29, 2019, opens new avenues in understanding the cognitive functions of sleep and mechanisms of creative thinking.

Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder that affects approximately 0.02% of the general population. It is characterized by uncontrollable sleep phases. These sleepiness have the distinction of often begin immediately by a particular phase of sleep, REM sleep, a situation not to encounter in normal times.

Indeed, our sleep consists of several stages and REM sleep is always preceded by a slow phase of sleep. So it usually sleep at least an hour before accessing this particular sleep. Narcoleptic people therefore have privileged access to REM sleep. They also have many parallels symptoms associated with REM sleep, as if they existed in them a porous barrier between wakefulness and that sleep phase. For example, the majority of them are lucid dreamers, that is to say conscious dreaming when they are dreaming and can sometimes influence the dream scenario. If more than half of the adult population reported having made a lucid dream at least once in his life, regular lucid dreamers (several times a week) are very rare.

Data from the current literature suggest that either nap including REM sleep is followed by an increased period of greater mental flexibility to solve problems. Narcoleptic individuals with privileged access to this sleep phase, would there be a long-term effect on their creativity?

By meeting regularly with narcoleptic patients in my service, I noticed they seemed more change in creative activities than average; not only in their careers but also in their leisure or their thinking. “Says Dr. Isabelle Arnulf, head of the Sleep pathology department at the Pitié-Salpêtrière, AP-HP. From this observation was born the idea of exploring the creative capabilities of these patients with regard to their particular access to REM sleep.

A study by Celia Lacaux, a researcher at the Sorbonne University, and Delphine Oudiette researcher at Inserm, within the department of sleep pathologies of the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital AP-HP led by Prof. Isabelle Arnulf to ICM, tested in collaboration with a team from the University of Bologna in Italy, the creative capacities of 185 narcoleptic individuals and 126 control individuals.

Defining and measuring creativity is not an easy task. In neuroscience, it can be defined as the ability to produce something both original and adapted to the constraints. To evaluate and obtain the fullest possible extent, the researchers used two methods:

  • A “subjective” measure based on creativity questionnaires in 185 narcoleptic subjects and 126 control subjects: a test “creative profiles” focused on the personality and creative profile, and a test of “creative fulfillment” on personal achievements participants in various fields of the arts and sciences, cinema writing, through humor, cooking or architecture.


  • A measure ‘objective’ creative performance through a “paper and pencil” test for two hours, called EPOC (Evaluation of the Creative Potential) in 30 patients and 30 controls. It assesses the two main dimensions of creativity: divergent thinking which demand from a stimulus to generate the most possible responses; and convergent thinking, which requires the integration of several objects in a single generation, coherent and original.

Narcoleptic individuals generally received higher scores than the control subjects, both objective measures and subjective. ”  If narcoleptic subjects had higher scores than control subjects, only some of them really stood out in terms of creative fulfillment. This suggests that we really encourage narcoleptic people realize their potential. “Said Delphine Oudiette, Inserm researcher at the MHI, who led the study. ”  Moreover, among people with narcolepsy, the subgroup of lucid dreamers obtenaitles highest scores of creative profiles test, suggesting a role of dreams in the creative abilities. 

This increased creativity could be explained by the privileged access to REM sleep and dreams enjoyed narcoleptic people and gives them the opportunity to “incubate” their ideas during brief naps during the day.

”  This is a strong argument to say that regular access to REM sleep and dreams promotes creativity. Sleep on it, you will find a solution! It is also the first time we show that narcoleptic subjects are better than average in an area as important as creativity, bringing the same positive note to this difficult disease to live with. “Celia Lacaux concludes, first author of the study. Further work will be needed to confirm this but these early results provide important clues to understanding the functions of REM sleep and dreams.

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