Creativity and Sleep

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The relationship between sleeping and creativity is the subject of much folklore. Many artists attribute their creative genius to dreams or insomnia, and it’s common advice to “sleep on it” whenever you’re faced with a tough decision. But what does the science say?

Scientists have developed objective tests that allow them to measure people’s creativity – notably their ability to form abstract connections and solve complex problems with creative solutions. Keep reading to learn if there is a true link between insomnia and creativity, how REM sleep aids creativity, and what you can do to optimize your sleep for improved creativity.

The creative brain during sleep

Creative solutions are often said to involve the right lobe of the brain, as opposed to the left lobe of the brain (which is associated with more logical and analytical thinking).

In 2010, some European scientists did tests of learning and brain activity during sleep and found support for the hypothesis that the right side of the brain is “heard” more after sleep. The consolidation of memory during a night’s sleep occurs before a change in functional activation states in the morning. These scientists concluded the restructuring of memory responsible for this right brain boost occurred during slow-wave sleep in the first half of the night, and that synthesis of new information may lead to creative insights upon waking.

Different creative types experience different sleep patterns, according to one study. Visual creative people reported more disturbed sleep and lower daytime functioning, whereas verbal creatives reported more overall sleep time, and later sleep onset and wake times.

Insomnia and creativity

Some artists have claimed that they are creative when suffering bouts of insomnia. This could be due to having more undirected time to fill than their well-sleeping peers, or the insomnia could cause a general unrest in the mind that the creative person seeks to fill with productivity and art.

It’s still unclear which causes the other. A 2013 study found that nighttime insomnia positively correlated with more divergent thinking and creative behavior. In another study, creative children exhibited increased sleep disturbances.

While some positive correlations have been found between insomnia and creativity, no studies have definitively proven that insomniacs are inherently more creative. Further, sleep deprivation generally degrades mental agility and higher-order brain functions, so we would expect someone running short on sleep for an extended period to NOT be creative.

What’s the bottom line on insomnia and creativity? Occasional insomnia appears to help some people produce new art and work, while it is a detriment to others. Long-term insomnia and the accompanying sleep debt are almost surely negative for creativity.

REM sleep and creativity

Many people report being able to do their best work immediately after awakening. What is so special about early morning? Research suggests the proximity to recent sleep is the key, especially given that most people have their longest stage of REM sleep just before waking in the morning.

During REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain waves mimic the activity experienced during your waking state and your eyes move rapidly side to side while remaining closed. This is the stage in which intense dreams occur.

REM sleep assists abstract problem solving

A Harvard Medical School study scientists reported that subjects can solve 30% more anagram word puzzles when they are tested after waking up from REM sleep than non-REM sleep. More recent research published in 2012 similarly found that sleep is particularly good at helping people solve complex problems.

REM sleep boosts creativity

Science has also confirmed that REM sleep helps people generally be more creative.

At the University of California at Davis, researchers used a protocol called a Remote Associates Test (RAT) to quantify increases in creativity. They divided test subjects into three groups right before taking the test. One group was allowed to rest but not sleep, another was allowed to experience NREM sleep but was roused before REM, and the other was allowed to reach the REM stage. Those in the rest and NREM groups showed no increase in creativity as measured by RAT, whereas those recently woken from REM sleep showed an increase in capacity.

UC San Diego scientists also found that participants scored 40% better on a creativity test after REM sleep. REM seems to spark solutions to new creative problems better than any other stage of sleep, suggesting that “sleep on it” may in fact be sound advice.

Does REM sleep help or hurt originality?

Italian researchers looked at the duration of the various stages of sleep. They found a positive correlation between deep sleep and both “originality” and “figural creativity,” but a negative correlation between REM sleep duration and originality. This finding stands in contrast to other work showing a positive correlation between REM and measures of creativity such as the UC Davis study.

The Italian scientists speculated that the low levels of the stress marker cortisol during NREM sleep play a role in allowing people to access information from deep memories and make connections they would not otherwise make.  During REM, brain levels of the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and acetylcholine and lower than when we are awake. The hypothesis is that the lower levels of these neurotransmitters somehow permit original associations in the mind.

This speculation was proved out in another study, where sleep researchers helped individuals understand relationships between unrelated pairs of subjects. They were then tested on their ability to pair correctly. Individuals performed best when they were tested after a full night’s sleep following the learning session (93% correct vs. 70% correct). This not only implies the brain’s synthesis of information during sleep (which has been proven time and again), but also REM’s function in enabling the brain to perform and preserve random associations between unrelated items, an ability which might otherwise be limited by the conscious mind.

Using dreams for creativity

People who consider themselves to have a creative activity – from gardening to art – consistently report using their dreams to assist in their creative process:

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge allegedly wrote the poem Kubla Khan after waking from an opium-induced dream.
  • Salvador Dali famously connected surreal paintings to dreams.
  • Paul McCartney says the melody for the song Yesterday came to him in a dream.
  • Mary Shelley claimed a waking dream gave her the inspiration for Frankenstein.

In some respects, dreams mimic the creative process in that they create connections between seemingly disconnected things, or in interesting combinations. Some believe dreams are one way our unconscious mind explores and works out problems, issues, or questions that arise in our waking lives.

Hypnagogia

Hypnagogia describes the dreamlike state we experience between sleep and waking. It typically lasts only a few minutes. Hypnagogia mimics REM sleep in the way the brain processes information and thoughts, except that during REM you are asleep. Both alpha and theta brain waves, which normally occur separately during waking or sleeping states, respectively, occur simultaneously during hypnagogia, which may cause this unique sensation.

Many well-known innovators like Benjamin Franklin have attributed their early morning creativity to hypnagogia, or sparks of inspiration from the dreams they just had.

Dream recall and creativity

The dreams in REM are the most narratively coherent of any during the night. These are the dreams people most often remember upon waking up, which may provide fodder and inspiration for their creative works. A Swiss study of adolescents found that people who are able to recall dreams tend to be more creative. The study also noted that better sleep quality correlated with dream recall.

A 2016 study found a positive correlation between paying attention to dreams and increased creativity. The researchers gave participants the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking to measure their creativity, then split them into two groups. Each day for nearly a month, the control group was asked questions to help them recall an event from the previous day, while the experimental group was asked questions to recall their dreams from the night before. The experimental group displayed significant improvement in the creative strengths component of the test.

Sleep hacks for better creativity

Can you sleep your way to better creativity? Potentially. Tap into the right side of your brain and let your dreams do the work for you with these tips.

1. “Sleep on it” works for tough problems.

Scientists have found that an “incubation period” can help in solving difficult problems when the brain does not focus on the problem. When the incubation period includes some sleep time, people are more likely to make connections among disparate ideas and facts.

For many difficult problems, the solution may come after periods of focus and periods of relaxation and mind-wandering. This mental wandering is important because your mind goes down many paths, most of which are unproductive but some of which could lead to insight or a solution.  The waking brain, when faced with a tough problem, may be too focused to get to a solution that requires a circuitous route.

Reminding yourself of the specific problem you want to solve before you go to bed may trigger your unconscious mind to work on it during sleep. A 1993 Harvard study found that when they asked themselves a question before bed, half of participants dreamt about the issue, and a quarter found a solution in their dreams.

2. Pay attention to your dreams.

Whether you keep a paper notebook by your bed or use a smartphone app, keeping track of your dreams may help you find inspiration for all sorts of creative projects.

Lucid dreaming enables you to explore ideas during a dream and play out different plot points. There are smartphone apps that help you become better at lucid dreaming. Ask yourself during the day if you’re dreaming to get your brain in the habit of checking in on your dream state while you’re asleep.  

3. Read something inspiring before bed.

It can be fiction or nonfiction. Anything that inspires your mind and suggests new information can prime you for creative thinking fresh upon waking. Your brain will synthesize the information as you sleep.

4. Find a sleep routine that works for you.

It may sound counterintuitive, but experts suggest scheduling your creative activities for the opposite time of day as when you are most productive. Creative thinking flows more easily when you’re tired, because your brain is prone to wander and get distracted by the tangential thoughts that many creatives see as critical to the creative process. If you are a morning lark, get creative in the evening, and if you are a night owl, create in the morning.

If you find yourself lying in bed for more than 15 minutes, get up and leave the bedroom. You want to treat your bedroom as an environment strictly for sleep, so go into another room and do something restfully productive, such as writing or sketching in a notebook. The creative activity will tire your brain, without the risk of blue light from a television or computer making you feel more awake.

While it’s best to not accumulate sleep debt, if you find yourself needing a creative jolt, you might try waking yourself up 30 minutes earlier than usual, triggering yourself to interrupt your sleep cycle. You might feel groggy as a result, but also more creative.

5. Experiment with naptime.

If REM is a key enabler in the creative process, that might explain why creative people don’t so often mention the period following a brief daytime nap as a fertile time. While naps can be useful for improving mental performance, the kind of mental energy gained after a power nap is more geared toward cranking things out rather than developing new ideas and concepts.

During a power nap, you only experience light sleep. However, people who take longer daytime naps may experience REM sleep, and likewise test better at creativity after awakening than those who do not. A 2010 study found that deep sleep (which can also be reached during longer naps) can improve idea generation in volume and originality.

6. Allow yourself to daydream.

Creators often talk of inspiration coming during a waking period similar to a dream and daydreams have long been connected with new ideas, syntheses of existing ideas, or applying existing ideas in new ways.

Daydreaming isn’t dreaming the way dreams happen during sleep. The mind is unfocused and wanders. This may be slightly more likely when one is tired, although it can happen any time during the day. One reason we advocate quality sleep is so that we can be alert during our waking hours, and that is often interpreted as sharp concentration. But humans benefit from daydreaming, too, as creativity is often spurred during these times.

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