Thomas Edison's Secret Trick to Maximize His Creativity by Falling Asleep

Why did Thomas Edison sleep with steel balls held in each hand? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Brian Roemmele, Founder + Editor at Read Multiplex, on Quora:

Why did Thomas Edison sleep with steel balls held in each hand?

“I enjoy working about 18 hours a day. Besides the short catnaps I take each day, I average about four to five hours of sleep per night”—Thomas Edison

The Hypnagogic State

Thomas Edison has attributed many of his insights into his experiments and new discoveries to a state of awareness and thinking he reached when entering what is known as a hypnogogic state [1]. Hypnagogia is the a transitional state between wakefulness to sleep. The hypnagogic state of consciousness arrives at a demarcation just at the onset of sleep. Edison would nap famously under his desk or on a work bench for up to 1 hour sometimes 3 times per day. Edison would generally hold two steel balls in both hands when he was preparing to sleep and was challenged by a daunting large problem. Some naps he would be sitting upright in a chair. Sitting up made it a bit harder for him to fully sleep allowing him to stay lightly conscious during these sessions. On the floor he placed directly below his closed hands metal saucers. The premise was simple, as he entered into the hypnogogic state, the body generally goes through a series of muscle reactions from a loosening to a sort of paralysis. In this transition Edison would drop the steel balls and the would crash to the floor, hitting the metal saucers for added effect and produce loud sound to awaken him. He would then be awakened by the sound and have a ready pad and pencil to record anything that he was thinking of just before being awakened.

Edison kept this technique rather private for most of his life, although some of his workers knew about his system and at times would be ready to transcribe his thoughts upon awakening. He would see imagery as as he grew drowsy dubbed the Tetris effect. This effect has even been observed in amnesiacs who otherwise have no memory of the original activity. When the activity involves moving objects, as in the video game Tetris, the corresponding hypnagogic images tend to be perceived as moving. The Tetris effect is not confined to visual imagery, but can manifest in other modalities.

During a regular sleep cycle there are generally four stages. We spend about 5 minutes in Stage 1 sleep, though it can last longer. Brain activity begins to slow down; body temperature starts to drop; muscles relax; eyes move slowly from side-to-side. We lose awareness of our surroundings but we’re still easily jarred to wakefulness. While you’re in this state, you can see visions and hallucinations of shapes, patterns, and symbolic imagery, hear noises including your own name or imagined speech and feel almost physical sensations that relate to what you spent the day doing like swimming in waves. You may feel like you’re floating, or falling which is why you sometimes wake up from Stage 1 sleep with a jerk. It was at this moment that Edison would find many of his insights and discoveries.

John Keats would use the hypnogogic state to inspire poetry. His “Epistle to John Hamilton Reynolds” begins with a description of the hypnagogic state:

“Dear Reynolds! as last night I lay in bed, There came before my eyes that wonted thread O shapes, and shadows, and remembrances, That every other minute vex and please: Things all disjointed come from north and south, – Two Witch’s eyes above a Cherub’s mouth… Few are there who escape these visitings, – Perhaps one or two whose lives have patent wings, And thro’ whose curtains peeps no hellish nose, No wild-boar tushes, and no Mermaid’s toes; But flowers bursting out with lusty pride, And young Eolian harps personified; Some Titian colors touch’d into real life”

The Edison & Ford Winter Estates, a shared vacation spot between best friends Henry Ford and Edison in Fort Myers, Florida has a statue of Edison is located under the banyan tree given to Edison by Harvey Firestone dedicated in 2005 that shows Edison holding a shiny stainless steel ball in his left hand.

Edison designed the garden where his statute now resides. He was meticulous in how it was to be presented. There is anecdotal information that tends to favor the concept of the statue and the location where it would be placed posthumously. His elaborate plans are on display at the Edison & Ford Winter Estates museum.

The die cast aluminum statue contrasts greatly to the glistening steel ball held by Edison. Although many biographers and historians do not record Edison’s work in the hypnogogic state, they simply state he napped quite a bit. Those close to him knew the very important part it played in his life as a creative inventor and may have acted on his wishes to display a statue with a “hidden in plain sight” homage to his use of the stainless steel balls and how it changes his life and the world.

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.”—Thomas Edison

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