Sleeping and creativity have always been connected. Their relationship is a prevalent theme in folklore, and many artists have credited their work to either insomnia or dreaming. We all know the popular saying “sleep on it” that is used to explain the process of delaying to make a decision until the following day. Creative solutions were always considered to involve the right side of the brain, while logical and analytical were believed to engage the left side of the brain. Let’s see how creativity and sleep are connected.
The Science of Sleep and Creativity
Many studies on sleep and creativity demonstrated how sleep could promote flexible reasoning and insightful behavior. Scientists have made objective tests that measure the creativity of a person during sleep to prove the correlations between sleep and creativity. A study done by European scientists showed that the right side of the brain is more active after rest. The boost of the brain’s right side happens during slow-wave sleep or deep sleep because of the restructuring of memory. This synthesis of fresh information causes creative insights when you wake up. It is speculated that there might exist a link between the two stages of sleep and creative problem-solving. The main phases of sleep could boost your problem-solving skills if they cooperated. There were even several theories about dreams and their creative function. But, some recent studies focused on the theory of creative insomnia and showed that sleep deprivation and creativity are linked.
Creativity and Insomnia
There could be a possible link between creativity and insomnia. Many artists have credited their work to their insomnia. Famous writers, like Emily Brontë and Marcel Proust, have confirmed that they worked through many sleepless nights. Sleepfulness seems to help certain people create new art or work. It is possible that the undirected time you have during an episode of insomnia needs to be filled and a mind of a creative person will want to fill it with productivity and art. Some studies have suggested that nighttime insomnia had a positive impact on creative behavior and creative thinking. Additionally, one study found that creative children have elevated sleep disturbances. However, no studies have provided proof that insomniacs are naturally more creative. Apart from that, sleep deprivation caused by long-term insomnia leads to a decreased mental activity which means that a person who hasn’t slept for a more extended period can’t necessarily be creative or even function correctly.
Creativity and REM Sleep
Many people claim they were able to conduct their best work right after waking up. There is even a story about Otto Loewi who abruptly woke up one night obsessed with an important idea. He wrote that idea on paper and continued sleeping, but what he ended up writing were illegible scribbles. But, the next night the same thing happened, and it was a design of an experiment involving neurotransmitters. He proved that nerve cells communicate by exchanging chemicals and even won a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1936. This was just one of the examples that showed how sleep promotes creative problem-solving, especially early in the morning (after the sunrise).
Researchers have advocated that the proximity to recent sleep is what drives this inspiration. Most people experience their longest periods of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep right before waking up in the early morning or for some during the night. While you are in your REM sleep, the brain waves simulate the activity you have in your waking state, while your closed eyes rapidly move from side to side. In this stage, your brain is more active, and intense dreams happen. For the majority of adults, this stage occupies 20 to 25 percent of total sleep.
During your REM sleep, acetylcholine – the neurotransmitter Otto Loewi found with his idea, floods the brain and interrupts the connection between the hippocampus and the neocortex. Both of these regions end up being in a flexible state which means the connections between the neurons can be stronger or weaker. This is what occurs during REM sleep. The brain searches for analogies between some unrelated ideas and straightens their connections with other things.
REM sleep enhances the development of the associative networks and the assimilation of unassociated information. Scientists have shown that REM sleep improves creativity. By using Remote Associates Tests (RAT) in their studies, they have proved that REM sleep increases the capacity of creativity, while NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep does not increase creativity. Italian research about sleep duration during different sleep stages also showed that there is a positive connection between originality, creativity, and deep sleep, but a negative association between the length of REM sleep and innovation. However, certain studies have hypothesized that low levels of cortisol (a hormone that helps the body respond to stress) during NREM sleep are responsible for making unexpected connections and controlling deep memories.
Using Dreams for Creativity
Throughout times people have reported using dreams as inspirations in their creative process. The famous English poet, literary critic, and philosopher, Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed that his poem Kubla Khan was written after he woke up from a dream induced by opium. The famous surrealist, Salvador Dali painted paintings that were inspired by dreams. Mary Shelley got her inspiration for Frankenstein in a dream, and Paul McCartney got the melody for the song Yesterday the same way.
Dreams make connections between things that you would never connect. They imitate the creative process and allow our unconsciousness to explore different combinations among things. Some believe that during sleep our minds try to sort out issues, problems, and questions that we have when we are awake.
Hypnagogia is the dreamlike transition state between waking and sleep, typically experienced when the person is falling asleep. The condition imitates REM sleep, but the name itself is derived from the Greek words for sleep and guide. This state usually lasts only a few minutes, but people can have visual or auditory disturbances or hallucinations while in hypnagogia. It causes your brain to process information and thoughts as if it was in the REM sleep stage, but you are awake. The alpha and theta brain waves happen at the same time while in hypnagogia, even though they usually appear separately in sleeping or waking phases.
Many individuals don’t know they experience hypnagogia, but it is actually fairly common. About 5 percent of individuals have hallucinations when they are awake, but about a third of people have sleep hallucinations. Hallucinations caused by hypnagogia are more common with adolescents and for individuals that have sleep disorders like insomnia, shift work sleep disorder or narcolepsy. Hypnagogic hallucinations are only dangerous if they happen during the daytime, and you can see things that are not there because your brain is not acting like you are awake. And any vivid or disturbing imagery may also be caused by narcolepsy.
However, in some cases, hypnagogia is known to help boost creativity. Many artists and even innovators have claimed that hypnagogia assisted them. Benjamin Franklin argued that his early morning creativity happened because of hypnagogia, and famous artist Salvador Dali even gave his hypnagogia a nickname and called it “the slumber with a key.”
Dream Recall and Creativity
The dreams in REM have best coherent narrative during the night. They are the dreams we usually remember when we wake up and the ones that contribute to your creative inspiration. Swiss research conducted on adolescents showed that the participants of the study were able to summon their dreams and be more creative because of it. And the better the sleep quality was, the better was the dream recall.
Sleep Hacks that Can Help with Creativity
Sleeping is a good way to get better creativity. You need to look into the right side of the brain and let your dreams explore many different ideas and solutions. Here are some useful tips that can boost your creativity.
Sleeping on it for tough problems – Researchers found evidence that having an incubation period can aid problem-solving. During this incubation period, the brain does not focus on the issue and can have a better approach to solve any difficult problems. If the incubation period overlaps with sleep time, you will be able to make connections with different facts, information, ideas, and situations. When trying to solve a difficult problem, you are likely to get a solution after periods of relaxation or even mind-wandering. This wandering is a useful technique that will help your psyche go down many paths that can lead to a solution, as opposed to the conscious brain which can get too focused on the problem and might not explore all options and possibilities to find a solution. Additionally, focusing on the problem before sleep can trigger the unconscious mind to try and solve it during sleep.
Read something before bed – Reading always provides a good creativity boost, especially before sleep. You can read anything that inspires your mind, fiction or nonfiction. Any reading material will inspire your mind to think of new, different ideas while sleeping and suggest new things and ideas to try out when you wake up. The brain synthesizes the information you get before sleep and processes it during sleep to help you with your creative thinking when you are awake.
Experiment with naptime – Naps are beneficial for improving creativity as they help with the mental performance that will be directed towards producing new ideas. Even though you only experience light sleep when taking a nap, you can also get deep sleep with longer daytime naps, which can improve idea-making in originality and volume.
Establish a sleep routine – A sleep routine is an excellent way to get a good night’s rest, but it might also help with your creativity. Experts have found that you can schedule creative activities for the opposite times of when you are most productive. When you are tired, your brain can wander and explore many ideas and thoughts, and you get better creative thinking flows. Morning people should get creative in the evening, while night people should get creative in the morning.
If you are lying in a bed for more than 15 minutes without sleeping, the best thing is to leave the bedroom so that your mind can treat it as an environment dedicated to sleep. Leaving the room and doing something productive and creative will tire your brain and you can get a good night’s sleep after that, along with the creative project you did. Even though it is not good to collect sleep debt, if the need for a creative jolt arises, you can wake yourself up 30 minutes earlier to trigger your creativity. You might feel groggy at first because you interrupted your sleep cycle, but you should end up being more creative.
Keep track of your dreams – To find inspiration for your creative project, it is essential to keep track of your dreams using a pen and paper or a smartphone app. Sleep tracking apps are used to track your sleep patterns, the collected sleep debt, and dreams. They can even help you get better rest at night, or check if you are at risk of acquiring or if you have sleep disorders.
Daydream – As we previously mentioned, our dreams explore many ideas and paths. Many famous people have credited their work to periods similar to dreams. Daydreams are connected to the synthesis of existing ideas and creation of new ideas. It is not the same as dreams during the night, but it helps the mind be unfocused and wander through many things. If you are tired, this has a slightly better chance of happening, but it can happen in other periods during the day as well.
Iva is an art historian and an art lover who always had a passion for writing and sleep! When she is not researching and testing new mattresses on the market, you can find her binge-watching TV shows, eating tons of junk food or playing with her dog Bart.