In a first-of-its-kind study, a research team led by Simone Ritter of the Radboud University Behavioral Science Institute in the Netherlands reports the beneficial effect of sleep on creativity can be enhanced by an evocative scent. It is published in the December issue of the always-stimulating Journal of Sleep Research.
Ritter and her colleagues, including Maarten Bos of Harvard Business School, describe a study featuring 49 participants between the ages of 18 and 29. All arrived at a laboratory in the evening and watched a 10-minute video about volunteer work.
They were then sent to bed as they pondered the problem: How can people be motivated to volunteer more of their time? They were expected to provide some innovative answers first thing in the morning.
For two-thirds of the participants, “a hidden scent diffuser spread an orange-vanilla odor while participants watched the movie and were informed about the creativity task,” the researchers write. Before going to bed, they were given an envelope containing a second scent diffuser, which they were instructed to open before falling asleep.
Half of them were exposed to the same orange-vanilla scent that was in the air when they watched the video. The others were exposed to a different odor. The remaining participants (one-third of the total group) were exposed to no scent, either while sleeping or awake.
The following morning, everyone was given two minutes to list the creative solutions they had come up with. Afterwards, they selected what they felt was their most innovative idea—a task that was included since recognizing good ideas is a key component of creativity.
Two trained raters scored all the ideas on a creativity scale, giving high marks to concepts that were both novel and useful. They found the ideas of those who slept with the orange-vanilla odor were far more innovative than those who had slept with a different scent, or no odor at all.
In addition, those in the orange-vanilla group were much more likely to agree with the raters as to which of their ideas was the most genuinely creative. They were both more innovative and more perceptive regarding which of their innovations was the most promising.