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Sleep and Creativity – Can Certain Sleep Habits Make You More Creative?

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Despite sleep taking one-third of our time, it remains a mystery for us. We know that sleep deprivation is bad for health. However, we have limited knowledge about the relationship between sleep and mental processes.

We know that some people sleep less, others have difficulty in going to sleep, while others may sleep well. So would such people differ in their mental abilities, in problem-solving capabilities, in creativity?

Relationship of sleep and creativity is still a subject of debate. Nonetheless, so many people have reported that brilliant idea stuck them, the next day, after good night sleep. On the contrary, many creative people complain that they stay awake till late and have difficulty in sleeping.

Nowadays, many tests can check mental abilities accurately. It means that researchers can compare creativity between various groups accurately. Research seems to indicate that creative people often seem of have insomnia. However, insomnia does not necessarily mean that they sleep less. Most studies confirm that creativity is better after prolonged sleep.

Right Brain and Sleep

It is now well-established fact that right and left half of brain differ. With right side of the brain doing most creative tasks and left doing logical calculations and administration.

In one of the research study of the brain, it was seen that the right-brain is slightly more active after sleep. It may be proof of the concept that sleep helps activate creative thinking. Researchers think that during the deep sleep (first half of night) there is a restructuring of memories. It may play a role in creative upsurge on waking.

In one of the studies, it was shown that creative people indeed sleep more than others. However, creative people often have difficulty going to sleep. They may also have poor sleep quality. It may be because creative brains overthink.

In yet another study in young children, it was found that highly creative children suffered from sleep disturbances. They would go to bed late. The study demonstrated that sleep pattern varied greatly between creative children and the control group.

Creativity and Insomnia

Many artists report having difficulty going to sleep. Insomnia is quite common among the creative folks. However, it is entirely possible that it happens because the creative brain is highly active. The creative mind is often filled with thoughts and ideas, which may hinder sleep initiation. Though going to sleep late may not disturb sleep wake cycle. A creative person may have different circadian rhythm.

Although, studies in children and adults support the idea that insomniacs are more creative. However, it does not mean that sleep deprivation would increase creativity. It is also well-accepted fact that tired mind is always out of ideas.

There is a need to understand that insomnia may be common among creative people. However, it does not mean that all people living with insomnia are creative. Lack of sufficient sleep is proven to reduce mental agility, thinking capacity, the power to concentrate. Therefore, a person who continually sleeps less cannot be creative.

So what do we conclude from this? Well, it seems that insomnia is common among people working on creative ideas. It is frequent among artists. However, highly creative people sleep long enough. They have their ways to relax and sleep. A brain that is chronically deprived of sleep cannot come with creative thoughts.

REM sleep and Creativity

Quite often when people cannot solve some puzzle or do the task, they can readily do it the very next day, after waking up from prolonged sleep. This rejuvenating effect of sleep is known to most people. We also know that some mental abilities are higher for a few hours in the morning.

From sleep studies, we also know that REM sleep cycles are longer in the second half of the night, in comparison to the first half. It leads us to the thinking that REM sleep may somehow have a positive effect on creativity.

REM sleep differs quite a lot from a deep sleep. In REM sleep brain behaves almost as if it is awake. In the REM stage, there are movements of the eye and even some bodily movements. It is a dream stage. It is more like a stage when the brain is giving finishing touches to the ideas.

In one of the clinical studies, it was found that subjects aroused after REM sleep had the better problem-solving capability when compared to those who tried to solve problems after non-REM sleep.

To confirm the concept that REM sleep boost creativity, University of San Diego did the interesting study. In the study, they divided participants randomly into three groups. One group was allowed to rest but not sleep. The second group of people slept but were aroused before the REM cycle. The third group was allowed to continue to REM phase of sleep. Researchers provided similar test questions to all the three groups to test creativity. To the amazement, REM sleep group performed much better than both the groups (See Figure 1).

Sleep and creativity figure 1
Figure 1 REM group had significantly better creativity than the other two groups (Source: 1. Cai DJ, Mednick SA, Harrison EM, Kanady JC, Mednick SC. REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. PNAS. 2009;106(25):10130-10134. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0900271106 )

However, we must say that not all scientists agree with such results. Some studies did not show significant differences.

It is also important to understand that though REM sleep is associated with high creativity, it does not mean that NREM is not related to creativity. REM sleep cannot occur without NREM. Thus no surprise that some of the new theories propose that creativity is instead a result of both NREM and REM.

NREM and REM need to be at optimal levels to improve creativity. Sleep deprivation, accumulating sleep debt will suppress creativity.

It seems that both NREM and REM work together to boost creativity. With each sleep cycle fulfilling its role in improving memories, and brain health. We have many scientific reasons to say that. NREM differs significantly from wake state or other sleep cycles. Only in NREM, the whole brain shoots in a coordinated manner, thus creating delta waves on EEG. Just in NREM, it seems that the entire mind is being synchronized. That is why we are so irritated and bit disoriented when aroused in this stage.

Researchers think that it is during the NREM sleep two different regions of the brain get an opportunity to talk to each other, and exchange ideas. During NREM, hippocampus a vital brain area in memory formation, and neocortex where a higher level of consciousness and reasoning resides chat with each other.

Whereas, during REM sleep everything changes and hippocampus and neocortex mingle with each other less actively. It is more like a time of thought and memory consolidation. During REM sleep changes in neuron connections occur.

So researchers think that during NREM, two regions of the brain come together for discussion. Sleep cycles are like several meetings between two different experts (communication with different areas of the brain), before concluding. It explains why most people perform better at the complex tasks after a good sleep. It also tells why people make better findings from previous day learnings after sleep. It is a phenomenon felt by most people.

So next time you are stuck in a complex task, cannot come to conclusions, perhaps the best strategy would be to sleep and try to hack the problem the next day.

Dreaming and Creativity

There were several examples when people reported finishing their creative project after a dream. Many famous personalities have said that they were struck with an ingenious idea in a dream. That is, they got their idea while in REM sleep or after it.

  • Paul McCartney (Beatles) told that he had a dream about famous melody “Yesterday.”
  • Stephen King said that idea about thriller “Dreamcatcher” stuck him in a dream. It happened while he was lying in a hospital recovering from an accident.
  • Salvador Dali, a surrealist painter, told that many of his paintings were just what he saw in dreams.
  • However, perhaps the most significant invention ever done in a dream state is a periodic table by Mendeleev. He said that he saw the whole table in a dream and then just wrote it down after waking.

During dreams we are little disconnected to reality, this provides us with greater freedom. Many scientists believe that in dreams our unconscious mind tries to solve the complex problems, that we are struggling with while awake.


It is called a hybrid state of sleep and waking. In most people, it happens only for a few seconds. It is a state that occurs immediately after waking. This stage can be seen in EEG. In this stage both alpha and theta waves are present. Usually, alpha waves are found when we are awake and theta when sleeping.

Many people report going through a unique kind of experiences in this stage. Benjamin Franklin said that many ideas came to him in this stage.

Dream recall, sleep quality, and creativity

Some of the latest research also shows that dream recall is related to both the sleep quality and creativity. Generally, those who can better recall dreams have better sleep quality. Similarly, higher ability to remember dreams is related to better creativity. However, dream recalling should not be confused with nightmares, which is altogether a different thing.

So can pay more attention to dreams make you more creative?

It seems so. One of the new studies seems to support the idea. In one of the study group of students were checked for creativity using specific test. Then students were randomly divided into two groups, and one group received a daily email asking them to recall dreams.

To the surprise of investigators, the group that was regularly asked to recall dreams for four weeks, did better in the next round of tests for creativity. Whereas, performance in the control group did not improve.

So if you want to boost your creativity, reflecting on your dreams may help.

Boost your creativity with these sleep hacks

It is well accepted that human creativity has four stages:

  1. Preparation
  2. Incubation
  3. Illumination
  4. Verification

So once you have an idea and information to work on, you are ready for next phase that is incubation. Sleep, daydreaming, dream recalling work as good ways for incubation, leading to illumination earlier or later.

So Mendeleev for thinking a lot about chemistry, collecting knowledge, sleeping with specific thoughts. He was obsessed with his ideas. Thus his brain would keep working in sleep. It suddenly led to illumination, when one day after sleep he came up with a periodic table.

Admittedly, this is not the first case. Many poets, artists, sages have reported it. Modern research also supports the idea that incubation works, and sleep is a good way to do that. REM sleep and mind wandering are too most effective ways of incubation.

So to get creative, produce better results;

  • Distribute your creative work over time – This means that do not wait for the last moments. If you have to deliver a specific project after six months, and you can do it in two weeks, it does not mean that you should start late. Earlier you start, longer would be incubation period. Your unconscious mind will get more time to work on the ideas.
  • Take frequent breaks – If you keep working on an idea too intensively and for too long, creativity suffers. So if you feel that you are moving nowhere, take a clean break. Do something not related to project, have fun. When you come back to the project, you will feel rejuvenated.
  • Enjoy mind wandering – Give time to your hobbies like photography, gardening, going for long walks. It is well known that many creative people spend lots of time on purposeless walking. Hobbies or walking or other activities give time to think on various subjects.
  • Tune your brain before going to bed – It could mean reading a book or thinking about your problem or project. So that when you go to sleep, your brain keeps working on the solution.
  • Take a nap, if you feel exhausted – It works for some people.
  • Daydreaming  – It is not similar to dreams that come while sleeping, nonetheless, it helps our brain to think less strictly. In this state, the brain can discover new things.
  • Take time to reflect on your dreams – Try to recall your dreams each day. You can even write down your dreams. There are even some smartphone apps available to help you with better dreaming.
  • Try practicing lucid dreaming – it is a technique in which a person learns to stimulate dreams, and control them.

So next time you feel that you are going nowhere, you are failing to come up with new ideas. Just take a break. Spend more time sleeping, and dreaming. Illumination will occur.

Additional Resources

  1. Stone J. The Creativity Hack You Can Do in Your Sleep. Psychology Today. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/clear-organized-and-motivated/201501/the-creativity-hack-you-can-do-in-your-sleep. Published January 21, 2015. Accessed November 9, 2018.
  2. Cai DJ, Mednick SA, Harrison EM, Kanady JC, Mednick SC. REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. PNAS. 2009;106(25):10130-10134. doi:10.1073/pnas.0900271106
  3. Neocortex (brain). ScienceDaily. https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/neocortex.htm. Accessed November 9, 2018.
  4. Popova M. How Mendeleev Invented His Periodic Table in a Dream. Brain Pickings. February 2016. https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/02/08/mendeleev-periodic-table-dream/. Accessed November 9, 2018.
  5. Riedel G, Micheau J. Function of the hippocampus in memory formation: desperately seeking resolution. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 2001;25(4):835-853. doi:10.1016/S0278-5846(01)00153-1
  6. Brand S, Beck J, Kalak N, et al. Dream recall and its relationship to sleep, perceived stress, and creativity among adolescents. J Adolesc Health. 2011;49(5):525-531. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2011.04.004
  7. Yordanova J, Kolev V, Wagner U, Verleger R. Differential Associations of Early- and Late-Night Sleep with Functional Brain States Promoting Insight to Abstract Task Regularity. PLoS One. 2010;5(2). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0009442

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