How a Good Night’s Sleep — and a Bad Night’s Sleep — Can Enhance Your Creativity


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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why You Do Your Best Think­ing In The Show­er: Cre­ativ­i­ty & the “Incu­ba­tion Peri­od”

The Psy­chol­o­gy of Messi­ness & Cre­ativ­i­ty: Research Shows How a Messy Desk and Cre­ative Work Go Hand in Hand

David Lynch Explains How Med­i­ta­tion Enhances Our Cre­ativ­i­ty

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Janet Baker says:

    I like the graph­ic bet­ter than the arti­cle. Study­ing a recent non-fic­tion book about how an unhealthy diet mod­el was dumped on us by bad research, I want my reports to give the details of the ‘study.’ I want to know how many sub­jects, was there a con­trol, and the sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis. I want to know the name of the researcher. These ‘stud­ies’ have become almost fic­tion­al nar­ra­tives dri­ven by forces far far from sci­ence.

  • Ray Madison says:

    I did­n’t see any dis­tinc­tion made here between the good cre­ativ­i­ty and the bad stuff. Or between solv­ing one’s prob­lems cor­rect­ly or less cor­rect­ly. Or whether sleep­ing pills might end up mak­ing you smarter.

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