Creative Commons image, "Sleep," by Masha Krasnova-Shabaeva
You decide you need some medical advice, so you take to the internet. Whoops! There’s your first mistake. Now you are bombarded with contradictory opinions from questionable sources and you begin to develop symptoms you never knew existed. It’s all downhill from there. So I’ll say this upfront: I have no medical qualifications authorizing me to dispense information about sleep disorders. The only advice I’d venture, should you have such a problem, is to go see a doctor. It might help, or not. I can certainly sympathize. I am a chronic insomniac.
The downside to this condition is obvious. I never get enough sleep. Whenever I consult the internet about this, I learn that it’s probably very dire and that I may lose my mind or die young(ish). The upside---which I learned to master after years of trying and failing to sleep like normal people---is that the nights are quiet and peaceful, and thus a fertile time creatively.
Medical issues aside, what do we know about sleep, insomnia, and creativity? Let us wade into the fray, with the proviso that we will likely reach few conclusions and may have to fall back on our own experience to guide us. In surveying this subject, I was pleased to have my experience validated by an article in Fast Company. Well, not pleased, exactly, as the author, Jane Porter, cites a study in Science that links a lack of sleep to Alzheimer’s and the accumulation of “potentially neurotoxic waste products.”
And yet, in praise of sleeplessness, Porter also recommends turning insomnia into a “productivity tool,” naming famous insomniacs like Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and Madonna (not all of whom I’d like to emulate). She then quotes psychologist Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of University College London, who made the dubious-sounding claim in Psychology Today that “insomnia is to exceptional achievement what mental illness is to creativity.” Everything about this analogy sounds suspect to me.
But there are more substantive views on the matter. Another study, published in Creativity Research Journal, suggests insomnia may be a symptom of “notable creative potential,” though the authors only go as far as saying the two phenomenon are “associated.” The arrow of causality may point in either direction. Perhaps the most pragmatic view on the subject comes from Michael Perlis, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who says, “What is insomnia, but the gift of more time?”
Dennis Drabelle at The Washington Post, also an insomniac, refers to a recent study (as of 2007) from the University of Canterbury that suggests “insomnia and originality may go hand in hand." He also points out that the notion of sleeplessness as productive, though “counterintuitive,” has plenty of precedent. Drabelle mentions many more famous cases, from W.C. Fields to Theodore Roosevelt to Franz Kafka. The list could go on and on.
Actor and musician Matt Berry tells The Guardian how, after years of tossing and turning, he finally harnessed his sleepless hours to write and record an album, Music for Insomniacs. “I knew that this was dead time,” says Berry, “and I could be doing something instead of sitting worrying about not being asleep.” Another musician, Dave Bayley of band Glass Animals, “owes his career in music to insomnia,” The Guardian writes, then notes a phenomenon sleep researchers call---with some skepticism---“creative insomnia." Other musicians like Chris Martin, Moby, Tricky, and King Krule have all suffered the condition and turned it to good account.
The Guardian also notes that each of these poor souls has found “sleepless nights inspiring as well as tormenting.” Insomnia is not, in fact a gift or talent, but a painful condition that Porter and Drabelle both acknowledge can be associated with depression, addiction, and other serious medical conditions. One might make good use of the time---but perhaps only for a time. A site called Sleepdex----which offers “resources for better sleep”---puts it this way:
Occasional insomnia appears to help some people produce new art and work, but is a detriment to others. It is perhaps true that more people find it a detriment than find it useful. Long-term insomnia and the accompanying sleep debt are almost surely negative for creativity.
This brings us to the subject of sleep---good, restful sleep---and its relationship to creativity. Sleepdex cites several research studies from Swiss and Italian universities, UC San Diego, and UC Davis. The general conclusion is that REM sleep---that period during which dreams “are the most narratively coherent of any during the night”---is also an important stimulus for creativity. There are the numerous anecdotes from artists like Salvador Dali, Paul McCartney, and countless others about famous works of art taking shape in dream states (Keith Richards says he heard the riff from “Satisfaction” in a dream).
And there are the experimental data, purportedly confirming that REM sleep enhances “creative problem solving.” European scientists have found that people were more likely to have creative insights after a long period of restful sleep, when the right brain gets a boost. Likewise, Tom Stafford at the BBC describes the “post-sleep, dreamlike mental state—known as sleep inertia or the hypnopompic state” that infuses our “waking, directed thoughts with a dusting of dreamworld magic.” It isn’t that insomniacs don’t experience this, of course, but we have less of it, as periods of REM sleep can be shorter and often interrupted by the need to scramble out of bed and get to work or get the kids to school not long after hitting the pillow.
Stafford points us toward a UC Berkeley study (apparently the University of California has some sort of monopoly on sleep research) “that helps illustrate the power of sleep to foster unusual connections, or ‘remote associates’ as psychologists call them.” Like nearly all of the scientific literature on sleep, this study expresses little doubt about the importance of sleep to memory function and problem solving. Big Think collects several more studies that confirm the findings.
On the whole, when it comes to the links between sleep---or sleeplessness---and creativity, the data and the stories point in different directions. This is hardly surprising given the slipperiness of that thing we call “creativity.” Like “love” it’s an abstract quality everyone wants and no one knows how to make in a laboratory. If it’s extra time you’re after---and very quiet time at that---I can’t recommend insomnia enough, though I wouldn’t recommend it at all as a voluntary exercise. If it’s the special creative insights only available in dream states, well, you’d best get lots of sleep. If you can, that is. Creative insomniacs---like those wandering in the confines of a dream world---know all too well they don't have much choice in the matter.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness