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Blog // Creativity
October 23, 2018

How Sleep Improves Our Creativity

Recent research suggests one of the best things we can do to become more creative is get a regular good night’s sleep. Here we look at some of what we can learn about this.

Stay up late, frequently late enough to see the sunrise, struggle through the day in a caffeine-fuelled haze, then crash into sleep or sickness when it all got too much. I was that cliché for many years.

Maybe it was partly the musician thing, being a creature of the night. But interestingly, other vocations, like coders, also like to work at night, in the quiet and distraction-free time when the rest of the world sleeps. Working in darker spaces can certainly be conducive to feeling creative.

But going to bed late isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of sleep. Going to bed at 3am might well work, as long as your life lets you sleep until late morning every day. For big chunks of my life, waking up late wasn’t a problem.

Then I had a kid and suddenly things changed.

It’s a fallacy that young children automatically have terrible sleep patterns. But they are early risers, and even black-out blinds won’t help keep them asleep much past what most adults consider to be early morning.

When my kid started school, the bus came a minute or two after 7am, which meant walking out of the apartment at 6.50am. Over the years, start times have varied from school to school and country to country. But it’s always been a pattern of early starts, which means late nights are a recipe for a lack of sleep.

For many years, I struggled with this. I noticed myself becoming less creative. I struggled to get into the night-time routines that had previously been so fruitful. Maybe I’m a slow learner or a creature of habit, but it took me a long time to learn the problem was simple.

A lack of sleep.

Good sleep, seven to eight hours a night, every night, with regular rising and sleeping times, isn’t some kind of luxury. It’s a necessity. And catching up on sleep doesn’t really do much to limit the problems a poor sleep routine can create.

What Does Sleep Do for Us?

A lack of sleep can lead to a range of chronic health problems, like obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease and increased risk of anxiety and depression. That alone should be reason enough to try to build good sleep habits.

But sleep also does specific things that can improve our creativity and sharpen our ability to do good work.

Sleep helps the brain consolidate and organise recent memories, and this can help us develop new insights and ideas. Sometimes your brain needs time away from a problem to make connections between memories, and the most effective way involves sleep. REM and NREM sleep help form the mental connections needed for creative and innovative thought.

As we saw when considering what going for a walk does for our creativity, the old idea that our brains are only hard at work when we are thinking or doing is wrong. A lot is going on when we sleep, and the notion that we need to sleep only when physically tired no longer rings true.

When we sleep, our brain rebuilds itself. Rather than think of our sleeping minds as being like a lightbulb or computer that’s been turned off, we should imagine a high-performance race car or some other complicated piece of machinery that is in for regular maintenance and tuning, night after night.

What About Dreams?

The parts of the brain that are most active during dreams are the same as those involved in processing vivid images. If your work involves assessing or describing complex images (and that could include everyone from writers to engineers, architects to doctors, and, of course, photographers), then dreaming could help.

In her article ‘Dreams and Creative Problem-Solving’, Deidre Barrett notes writers like Mary Shelly, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Rice and Stephen King have written scenes based on dreams, and directors including Ingmar Bergmann, Federico Fellini and Akira Kurosawa have done the same. Paul McCartney and Billy Joel both wrote music from dreams, as have several classical composers. Even scientists, engineers and mathematicians have created work based on things that came to them in dreams.

‘Many non-Western cultures teach people to look to their dreams for solutions. These cultures seem to have higher rates of problem-solving dreams. While Western mathematicians have occasionally made major breakthroughs in their dreams, India’s greatest mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, said that all his mathematical proofs came to him in dreams and that he attributed them to the goddess Namagiri, to whom he had been taught to pray for dreams.’ – Deirdre Barrett

In the study, Barrett used a process called ‘dream-incubation’, where participants were asked to solve a series of problems at night, so they would fall asleep with an unsolved problem in mind. Subjects considered a range of problems, but the dreams that seemed most useful were in response to problems that required ‘out of the box’ thinking, perhaps because ‘…the prefrontal cortex is damped down so that we are not as quick to censor with “that’s not the way to approach it.”’

What About Naps?

One study concluded that for a range of cognitive activities, a daytime nap is at least as effective, if not more effective, than coffee over the course of the day, especially for activities that require memory. The study concluded by saying, ‘Recent attention to the importance of overnight sleep for a variety of health and cognitive domains has demonstrated that no complete pharmacological alternative to a good night’s rest has been discovered. The present findings suggest that caffeine, the most common pharmacological intervention for sleepiness, may not be an adequate substitute for the memory enhancements of daytime sleep, either.’


I can’t believe I used to say things like ‘I’ll get enough sleep when I’m dead.’ I also can’t believe I used to shun daytime naps, considering them a kind of weakness, or a cultural relic, saying ‘We’ve outlived the age of the siesta.’

How wrong I was!

We can do a lot of things to feel more creative, but the best thing we can do is get a good night’s sleep, and maybe the occasional daytime nap as well.

Octavio 6 years ago

I remember back in uni we were shown a very extraordinary building by an architect or designer who dreamed this very complex floating cloud shape, and he got the chance to put that childhood dream not only on paper but in reality, and it looks like a floating cloud, it is an office building, and it’s very interesting how they had to solve some construction issues because of the complexity of the design, but instead of simplifying it, they respected this architect’s childhood dream. I think it was made out of metal and glass, I cant get around his name right now but it shows a perfect and very visual example of making your dreams come true, very literal.

Octavio 6 years ago

Continuing my first comment, I am pretty sure this was the building and design I was talking about:


Had to look it up!

Agostina 6 years ago

It’s funny because in the city of Buenos Aires we don’t nap, stores don’t close during nap time, I grew up in the outskirts and there, yeah, after 1, everything will be closed till 4 or 5, and the inside of the country, the Buenos Aires people would joke about them being lazy because they respect nap time very much. It usually is in provinces where in the afternoon is very hot and you don’t have energy to do much because of the heat, it really doesn’t make a difference in productivity if you close during those times unless you are in the middle of the city. In Europe they close all of Sundays and most of Saturdays and those are the days Im more used to shop the most, in the UK I
could do it, but not in the rest of Europe… I don’t know how they do it, but I don’t see many people saying Europeans are lazy in Buenos Aires.

Valentina 6 years ago

So many times I would pull an all-nighter and in the morning, all burnt-out, I would go to bed, with whatever I was doing penetrating my brain completely at that point, and then in the midst of stressful-bad sleeping, I would usually find the answers in dreams. A lot of times I would stress and focus hard on something, not letting it go, not letting it flow, just there in my mind, stuck, more in a negative way than productive, like punishing myself for not coming out with something, stressed about deadline. And my friends would tell me not to stress so much, it’s worse, etc. But then when I couldn’t take it in my mind anymore, I would just release the thought, let it go, I would have fun with my friends, relax at home, cook something nice for myself or my family and friends, just thinking of stupid stuff while on the bus, and then something in my mind would click, maybe something I saw right at that moment, maybe it just came to me, but it always works. And I don’t think it works as much as if I don’t focus so much about it first, if I’m relaxed about it, it’s like my brain doesn’t realize “hey, this is an emergency, we gotta do this now!“ but it’s like catch and release, I need to catch it, hold it, and then release and my brain acts, like “ok, let’s get ourselves out of here, I don’t like this situation we are in“. Sleeping is the same, we release our mind, from our box, our ethics, our morals, we let go and we get our own hidden answers, magical things happen then, even things that might make us feel embarrassed or even traumas that we need to unlock. The mind is an extraordinary thing.

Tam 6 years ago

1. Beautiful image, where is it?
2. “Stay up late, frequently late enough to see the sunrise, struggle through the day in a caffeine-fuelled haze, then crash into sleep or sickness when it all got too much. I was that cliché for many years.“ I love being this cliche every once in a while, used to do it more often than not, now not so much and I miss it sometimes, when it happens, seeing the sunrise feels magical, I even enjoy the hungover!

Julia 6 years ago

Just last weekend, after a long and slow move in parts to a city nearby, we napped so deeply, most of the weekend. My boyfriend doesn’t have a problem napping, but it’s really hard for me so tired that I let go and nap. Usually my brain is just going and I can’t relax enough to nap. Daydreaming, yes, nap.. Nope. In kindergarten I hated nap time, and nowadays a lot of times I wake up more tired or with burning reflux, so a nap is not my first choice usually. But last weekend, after not having much sleep these past weeks and the constant to-do list in my head and a friend that came visit us, who said was going to help us but ended up being more of a burden than a relief, once we dropped her at the bus station, the next two days were filled with amazing deep naps that really brought me back to life.

fernando 4 years ago

Tam – the image is Lamayuru monastry in Ladakh, northern India.

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