It’s a tried and tested technique used by writers and poets, but can psychology explain why first moments after waking can be among our most imaginative?
It is 6.06am and I’m typing this in my pyjamas. I awoke at 6.04am, walked from the bedroom to the study, switched on my computer and got to work immediately. This is unusual behaviour for me. However, it’s a tried and tested technique for enhancing creativity, long used by writers, poets and others, including the inventor Benjamin Franklin. And psychology research appears to back this up, providing an explanation for why we might be at our most creative when our minds are still emerging from the realm of sleep.
The best evidence we have of our mental state when we’re asleep is that strange phenomenon called dreaming. Much remains unknown about dreams, but one thing that is certain is that they are weird. Also listening to other people’s dreams can be deadly boring. They go on and on about how they were on a train, but it wasn’t a train, it was a dinner party, and their brother was there, as well as a girl they haven’t spoken to since they were nine, and… yawn. To the dreamer this all seems very important and somehow connected. To the rest of us it sounds like nonsense, and tedious nonsense at that.
Yet these bizarre monologues do highlight an interesting aspect of the dream world: the creation of connections between things that didn’t seem connected before. When you think about it, this isn’t too unlike a description of what creative people do in their work – connecting ideas and concepts that nobody thought to connect before in a way that appears to make sense.
No wonder some people value the immediate, post-sleep, dreamlike mental state – known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state – so highly. It allows them to infuse their waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic. Later in the day, waking consciousness assumes complete control, which is a good thing as it allows us to go about our day evaluating situations, making plans, pursuing goals and dealing rationally with the world. Life would be challenging indeed if we were constantly hallucinating, believing the impossible or losing sense of what we were doing like we do when we’re dreaming. But perhaps the rational grip of daytime consciousness can at times be too strong, especially if your work could benefit from the feckless, distractible, inconsistent, manic, but sometimes inspired nature of its rebellious sleepy twin.
Scientific methods – by necessity methodical and precise – might not seem the best of tools for investigating sleep consciousness. Yet in 2007 Matthew Walker, now of the University of California at Berkeley, and colleagues carried out a study that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or “remote associates” as psychologists call them.
Under the inference
Subjects were presented with pairs of six abstract patterns A, B, C, D, E and F. Through trial and error they were taught the basics of a hierarchy, which dictated they should select A over B, B over C, C over D, D over E, and E over F. The researchers called these the “premise pairs”. While participants learnt these during their training period, they were not explicitly taught that because A was better than B, and B better than C, that they should infer A to be better than C, for example. This hidden order implied relationships, described by Walker as “inference pairs”, were designed to mimic the remote associates that drive creativity.
Participants who were tested 20 minutes after training got 90% of premise pairs but only around 50% of inference pairs right – the same fraction you or I would get if we went into the task without any training and just guessed.
Those tested 12 hours after training again got 90% for the premise pairs, but 75% of inference pairs, showing the extra time had allowed the nature of the connections and hidden order to become clearer in their minds.
But the real success of the experiment was a contrast in the performances of one group trained in the morning and then re-tested 12 hours later in the evening, and another group trained in the evening and brought back for testing the following morning after having slept. Both did equally well in tests of the premise pairs. The researchers defined inferences that required understanding of two premise relationships as easy, and those that required three or more as hard. So, for example, A being better than C, was labelled as easy because it required participants to remember that A was better than B and B was better than C. However understanding that A was better than D meant recalling A was better than B, B better than C, and C better than D, and so was defined as hard.
When it came to the harder inferences, people who had a night’s sleep between training and testing got a startling 93% correct, whereas those who’d been busy all day only got 70%.
The experiment illustrates that combining what we know to generate new insights requires time, something that many might have guessed. Perhaps more revealingly it also shows the power of sleep in building remote associations. Making the links between pieces of information that our daytime rational minds see as separate seems to be easiest when we’re offline, drifting through the dreamworld.
It is this function of sleep that might also explain why those first moments upon waking can be among our most creative. Dreams may seem weird, but just because they don’t make sense to your rational waking consciousness doesn’t make them purposeless. I was at my keyboard two minutes after waking up in an effort to harness some dreamworld creativity and help me write this column – memories of dreams involving trying to rob a bank with my old chemistry teacher, and playing tennis with a racket made of spaghetti, still tinging the edges of my consciousness.
The low-budget unsanctioned film Escape from Tomorrow is a better-than-documentary look inside the Freudian neurotics of the Magic Kingdom
When people die in Disney World, medics, who arrive in unmarked emergency vehicles, treat and talk to the corpse as though it’s just a passed-out visitor, so as not to alarm other guests and dispel the magic. By policy no one actually dies on Disney property—they are always still “alive” until they arrive at a hospital, outside the confines of the theme park. This last, at least, according to anonymous employees in the book Inside the Mouse, whose reports are sufficiently tangled up with rumor and urban legend at this point to make none of these claims “verifiably true”—claims which Disney has, furthermore, frequently quashed with the threat of a libel suit.
What is clear is that people die at Disney World, and Disneyland, and EPCOT, not because of ride malfunction so much as undetected congenital heart conditions, heat stroke, or other illnesses. And workers die on the job—drivers, maintenance, performers: a lot of head trauma from failed acrobatic stunts or falls from catwalks. Like any place where lots of people work and lots of people are—Disney World sees over 20 million visitors per year, and employs over 66,000 “cast members”—people die.
Whether or not accounts of EMTs in Disney uniforms cooing reassurances to corpses as they pass through Adventureland are literally true, they have sufficient reality to make us nod knowingly and think of Jean Baudrillard. Death in Disney World is such an obvious irony that it approaches banality. But the question of sexuality in the Magic Kingdom is a more interesting one; a lot more people are fucking at Disney resorts than dying. What kind of desire could flourish in the never-never land of permanent childhood, or, at least, in the rigidly familial atmosphere of the world’s most notorious simulacra?
The low-budget film Escape from Tomorrow makes a pretty good case that Disneyworld is a territory particularly attuned to both the fantasies and the exposure of rather pervy, borderline-pedophilic middle-aged male sexuality. Shot entirely and illegally on Disney premises, the guerrilla film portrays the surreal and sometimes horrific last day of a family vacation in Orlando. Sold in its promotional materials mostly as a sort of horror-sci-fi, the film’s generic components are less central to the film’s running time and interest then the squeamish laying bare of the Dad and his pathetic desires.
The Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is made up of those intangible heritage elements that help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.
What makes people like you? Are there particular qualities that make you the kind of person your friends want to go on a road trip with, or call with exciting or sad news, or ask to water their plants? Is it that youâre fun, friendly, hilarious, and always up for a good time? Or that youâre fair, responsible, honest, and wise? Which qualities really count? Researchers have argued for years that we bundle nearly all personal traits into two categoriesâthose of warmth and competenceâand that the things that make us like other people are mostly about warmth. But new findings are suggesting there is something distinct from either category that is actually more important: morality. While psychologists have generally considered morality to fall under the heading of warmth, new research is suggesting that we consider it separately. Whether people are good turns out to be more important to our relationships than whether they are friendly or fun and it’s also more important to who we think they really are.
In 2000, economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the internal wage structure of a Chicago drug gang. This piece would later serve as a basis for a chapter in Levitt’s (and Dubner’s) best seller Freakonomics.  The title of the chapter, “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, was based on the finding that the income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated 3.30 dollars as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms). 
If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or being beaten up by your own hierarchy, you might wonder why anybody would work for such a low wage and at such dreadful working conditions instead of seeking employment at Mc Donalds. Yet, gangs have no real difficulty in recruiting new members. The reason for this is that the prospect of future wealth, rather than current income and working conditions, is the main driver for people to stay in the business: low-level drug sellers forego current income for (uncertain) future wealth. Rank-and file members are ready to face this risk to try to make it to the top, where life is good and money is flowing. It is very unlikely that they will make it (their mortality rate is insanely high, by the way) but they’re ready to “get rich or die trying”.
With a constant supply of new low-level drug sellers entering the market and ready to be exploited, drug lords can become increasingly rich without needing to distribute their wealth towards the bottom. You have an expanding mass of rank-and-file “outsiders” ready to forego income for future wealth, and a small core of “insiders” securing incomes largely at the expense of the mass. We can call it a winner-take-all market.
“Travel is useful, it exercises the imagination. All the rest is disappointment and fatigue. Our journey is entirely immaginary. That is its strength. It goes from life to death. People, animals, cities, things, all are imagined. It’s a novel, just a fictitious narrative. Littré says so, and he’s never wrong.
And besides, in the first place, anyone can do as much. You just have to close your eyes.
It’s on the other side of life.”—Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Journey to the End of the Night
“Creative people are usually driven by curiosity and tend to be more intrinsically motivated—more interested in the rewards of intellectual discovery than in financial or status rewards. Therefore, they are often considered odd both by the general public and by fellow practitioners. But the reason innovators are less concerned with money and power is that they get their reward directly from their work. They are satisfied by the excitement and wonder involved in the process of discovery—a fulfillment no amount of money can buy.”—Howard E. Gardner
As thousands in Khartoum, Sudan, and surrounding areas took the streets at the end of September and Twitter blew up under the hashtag #SudanRevolts, I waited patiently for Western media to catch up. When it finally addressed that something was happening in Sudan, their message was clear: “Amidst Riots, President Bashir won’t be attending the UN conference.” read one headline. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. Even though the same media had been enthralled by the mass protests in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Greece, and Spain; Sudan’s mass protests received three short paragraphs, focused on their effects on the nation’s president, with “Riots” in the headline.
I’ve been to protests In Istanbul and Greece. I’ve seen windows smashed, graffiti drawn, Molotovs prepared, and things set alight. Still, the situations where lighter skinned people were filling the photographs: protests. When darker skinned people are involved? Riots. The decision to call one riots and the other protests has nothing to do with the amount of violence in the demonstrations. Violence is a realistic factor, and sometimes, a tactic, in all of these protests. Resisting is never peaceful. If the State fears you, it will crack down on you violently, despite your kumbaya circle.
Protesters’ natural response to a State’s violent crackdown (usually police brutality) is self-defense. The self-defense is often barricades — blocking the police from getting to the crowd of people. Barricades can be formed with large objects, fires, or human beings. Those on the front lines can use their bodies as buffers between the police and the rest of the crowd, stopping the police from getting to the masses. Rocks may be thrown at the police to push them back. In the face of police brutality, without self-defense, a protest usually cannot survive.
With the destruction of property, violence can turn from an aspect of self-defense to a useful offensive tactic. Nothing gets the attention of the elite like taking away or destroying what they value above all else: property. In America, property is racial. It always has been. Consider the racist violence which stretches from slavery to lynching to the ongoing extrajudicial killings of black men and women. For 300 years, the very idea of a black person’s freedom was a direct threat to white men’s property. After slavery, lynchings were often targeted at blacks who had gained relative wealth and therefore, challenged the wealth and property of white men. This year, George Zimmerman was found not guilty for killing an unarmed black child-who he assumed was breaking into homes in his gated, white community, or threatening the property of his white neighborhood. When property is destroyed by black protesters, it must always be understood in the context of the historical racialization of property. When the same system that refuses to protect black children comes out to protect windows, what is valued over black people in America becomes very clear.
One cannot discuss the immorality of damaging property without devaluing the rage that brought protesters to this point. You, too, have to decide which one you value more: human life or property. As Vinz so eloquently says in the film La Haine, when rage spills into the streets after a brutal police beating left a young man from the ghetto on life support: “A homeboy’s dying; fuck your car.”