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.