Creativity And Sleep

Dream, Create, Rest, Repeat.
Creativity And Sleep
Tom Greenspan
December 21, 2022

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There are various debates surrounding the relationship between sleep and creativity - while some believe insomnia boosts creative genius, others believe sleep is essential to creativity.

Even though sleep and creativity studies haven’t received much exposure, researchers found various interesting connections through objective tests that measure creative solutions and abstract thinking. While some hypotheses show that deep sleep inspires insight and creative process, other studies have led to the popularity of “creative insomnia,” where sleep deprivation significantly improves creative thinking.

So, let’s take a deeper look at these correlations to find out the true link between creativity and sleep. And while we’re at it, we will walk you through REM sleep and how one can enhance their creative process. 

Let’s begin!

Sleep And The Brain

Creative insight and thinking are usually associated with the right lobe of the brain, unlike the left lobe, which is associated with analytical thinking, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility. Sleep typically has three stages: rapid eye movement (REM), quiescent, and slow wave sleep. 

Some scientists closely researched the sleep-wake cycle and brain activity during different sleep stages. They found that the right brain is more active during the sleep cycle, which is attributed to memory consolidation that happens in the right lobe during slow wave sleep.

While this memory restructuring occurs during the first half of the night or early sleep stage, the creation of new information happens when one wakes up. Moreover, different types of creative people have different sleep schedules and patterns. For example, visually creative people are likely to have sleep disturbances and low functioning during the daytime, while verbally creative people report low sleep disturbance.

Creative Insomnia: Poor Sleep And Creativity

Many artists are said to have benefitted from creative insomnia, where sleep deprivation allegedly onsets the creative mind. This could happen due to two reasons. 

Firstly, since they’re unable to fall asleep, they have plenty of unutilized time to work compared to their peers who get a good night’s sleep. Secondly, insomnia can also cause mood swings and mental disturbance, which many artists use to fuel their productivity and art.

Even though the sleep research conducted in 2013 found insomnia positively affects creative thinking, problem-solving, and intense emotions, there aren’t many other studies concluding the same. Generally speaking, not falling asleep due to sleep disturbance doesn’t tickle any creative sweet spot; rather, poor sleep deteriorates brain function and creative thinking. Insomnia can often help someone get their creative spark short-term, but being sleep-deprived long-term can be fatal to one’s creative juices.

REM Sleep: Deeper Sleep And Creativity 

Creative ideas usually manifest better after awakening from a restful sleep. Since REM sleep is the longest sleep stage and it usually happens before you wake up, the proximity to the last time you fell asleep affects creative problem-solving. 

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep causes the brain waves to mimic the activities you did in your wakeful stage. That’s why your eyes move side to side while remaining closed. Vivid dreams occur during the REM stage.

Moreover, REM sleep is highly conducive to flexible reasoning and critical thought, further increasing cognitive abilities. This has been proven by researchers at Harvard Medical School, who found that 32% of people performed better in anagram problem-solving after awakening from REM than non-REM sleep.

Does REM Boost Creativity?

Other studies have also concluded that REM sleep enhancement has helped people to be more creative than others. At the University of California, researchers used a creativity test called RAT (Remote Associates Test) to measure the differences in creativity between the test subjects. The subjects were divided into three groups:

  • The first group was allowed to rest but did not get enough sleep
  • The second group experienced NREM sleep but were awoken before they entered REM sleep
  • The third group was allowed to get better sleep and enter the REM stage

While the first and second groups showed no difference in the creativity test, the third group showed a 40% increase in creativity reasoning and abstract thinking. A good night’s rest with a longer REM stage seems to have given the subjects a spark - they came up with solutions faster than the groups with non-REM sleep/rest.

This is because the level of neurotransmitters, namely acetylcholine, and norepinephrine, is lower during REM, which allows the brain to create original associations. Such a significant correlation between memory, association, and REM sleep can be best noticed in the instance where people tend to remember things better when they sleep after a lesson. Furthermore, this implies that REM sleep onset helps the brain to remember unrelated associations and process original thoughts.

Dreams And Creativity

The “spark” or nerve impulses that give an artist a light shove toward creativity are dreams rather than a lack of sleep. Many writers and artists in history have repeatedly used dreams to help boost their creative ideas or plots.

Dreams can mimic the creative process in various ways - they can create unique scenarios using connections between completely unrelated events or things. That’s why many people believe that our unconscious mind tries to solve problems and real-world issues when we fall asleep through dreams. Many people can also derive creative inspiration during the hypnagogia stage, so let’s look at that.

What Is Hypnagogia?

It is a dreamlike state that occurs between sleeping and waking, but it lasts only for a few minutes. Hypnagogia can feel a lot like REM since it can mimic the way your brain processes thoughts and information during the sleep stage. However, unlike hypnagogia, you’re actually asleep during REM.

During hypnagogia, the alpha and theta brain waves which separate your sleeping and waking moments, are produced simultaneously, thus blurring the line between the two. This feeling is also often felt during sleep paralysis, where your brain is partially active while your body sleeps.

Can Dream Recall Help Creativity?

Most people can remember their dreams during the REM stage since they are the most coherent and close to your waking. Such dreams often inspire creative people to develop creative ideas and abstract solutions, boosting their productivity. 

A sleep researcher studied some adolescents in Switzerland, and he found out that those who can recall their dreams are more creative. What’s more, he found a positive correlation between dream recall and better quality sleep (at least eight hours).

Another study conducted in 2016 explored the relationship between creativity and the ability to pay attention to one’s dreams. The subjects were divided into two groups: the control and the experimental group. For almost a month, the control group was nudged to recall an event from the previous day via questions, while the experimental group recalled their dreams from the previous night. The latter group showed better capability for creativity and related cognitive activities.

How To Improve Creativity Through Sleep?

Did you know one can tap into the right side of their brain with a few sleeping tips? Let’s look at some of them!

1. Let Your Brain Go Into Incubation Mode While Facing Tough Problems

Most of us have heard of the phrase “sleep on it,” which can be quite true when facing complex problems. Well, it actually works - researchers have found that an incubation period (including enough sleep time) can enhance one’s ability to form neural connections between disparate facts or ideas. 

Finding the solution to a complicated issue can be less difficult after an alternating phase of relaxation (including “mind-wandering”) and intense focus. Mind-wandering is really significant in this process since it helps your mind measure various possibilities and trains of thought, which may lead to some insight. Meanwhile, when awake, your brain is too focused and tense to explore different thought patterns.

You can facilitate the process by reminding yourself of a certain problem right before falling asleep. This will trigger your brain and, consequently, the subconscious mind to try solving it during deep sleep.

2. Focus On The Details Of Your Dreams

If you’re falling short of creative ideas and inspiration, you can consider noting down the dreams in a notebook or tablet. This will feed your creative juices for various projects. Moreover, lucid dreaming can help you explore different plot lines during your dream - several websites provide ways of mastering lucid dreaming. However, training the brain to check up on your dreams is one of the most foolproof ways to ensure you’re conscious during the dream.

3. Develop The Habit Of Reading Before Bed

Try reading something inspiring - be it fiction or nonfiction - before you go to bed. Not only will this help calm your mind and develop focus, but it will also suggest fresh information to your brain. This way, you can train the brain to think more creatively after waking up since it will process the information you read.

4. Find The Right Sleep Schedule

When it comes to your creative activities, many experts recommend scheduling them when you’re least productive. This may sound counterintuitive, but the brain tends to flow and wander when you’re tired rather than focused. Easily distracted by tangential and abstract thoughts, the brain can conjure more creative ideas and topics crucial to the process or activity.

Having a designated sleep schedule can help you get into the routine of creative productivity while maintaining optimal health. Try going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day - this will help your body fall into a circadian rhythm. 

However, if you cannot fall asleep for 15 minutes, leave the bed and go to a different room to do something calming yet productive. Write in your notebook or simply sketch, and avoid using electronics since the blue light will force you to stay awake.

Moreover, you must remember to use your bedroom strictly for sleeping purposes and do everything else in a different part of the house. This gives your brain the cue to relax and fall asleep when you enter the bedroom.

5. Experiment With Your Daytime Naps

Since REM is a critical component in the creative process, many creative people don’t find time after a daytime nap to be conducive. While naps can improve mental performance and cognitive function, this enhancement is usually more productive for getting things done rather than doing something creative.

During daytime naps, your brain only experiences light sleep, so there’s no creativity boost from the REM stage. However, people who take longer naps with deep sleep perform better at the creativity test after awakening - it improves originality and idea generation.

6. Don’t Limit Your Brain From Daydreaming

Many creative people attribute daydreaming as a source of inspiration for their creative pursuits. This is because dreams and daydreams are culturally connected to new ideas or syntheses of different ways to look at an existing idea. 

Unlike dreams, we don’t fall asleep while we daydream - rather, the mind starts to wander and disassociate with reality, especially when tired. While daydreaming mostly occurs when we’re exhausted, it can also happen at any time of the day.

However, daydreaming has developed a bad reputation as detrimental to concentration, which is why deep sleep is advocated to improve focus. But creative people can actually benefit from daydreaming every now and then.

To Sum It Up

Different sleep stages affect our cognitive abilities differently - and most sleep experts attribute REM sleep to creativity. However, the ever-expanding debate about whether sleep really does hit the creative sweet spot continues. But one thing most researchers and scientists agree on is that creativity works differently for different people.

While some may feel more creatively productive after sleep loss, others may feel more rejuvenated to work on a project after a good night’s sleep. So, although there’s no doubt regarding the connection between sleep and creativity, the results tend to be highly subjective. 

That brings us to the end of our detailed investigation into the topic. If you want to learn more about the various aspects of sleep, keep an eye on our website.

Until next time, goodbye!