It’s been long considered that we can enhance our creative problem solving and foster insight by getting into the right state of mind. This may include meditation, quiet reflection or getting a good night’s sleep.
Historically, artists, scientists and musicians have attributed their genius to dreams or insomnia. Today, scientists even have protocols that let them measure creativity. And creativity is not restricted to those in the arts. Being ‘creative’ is about connecting different ideas, in a way that is interesting and useful. It helps us have better ideas, form abstract connections and solve complex problems. But how strong is the link between sleep and creativity?
Discover the link between insomnia and genius, how REM sleep supports creativity, and how you can optimise your sleep for a creative edge.
Insomnia and creativity
History is littered with tales of artists and inventors who create their greatest works or experience dramatic eureka moments when suffering from insomnia. But is there truth in this theory? Some studies have concluded that insomnia is linked to more divergent thinking and creative behaviour, although in our own research, we have yet to find any that prove insomniacs are more creative. The odd sleepless night may help some people to create more – partly because those people simply have more waking hours, and partly because creative ideas buzzing around in their brains may make it harder to drift off.
Conversely, as prolonged sleep deprivation is bad for all sorts of cognitive functions, it makes sense that someone in massive sleep debt will be less creative than their well-rested colleague.
And sleep deprivation is not just bad for creativity, it’s bad for our health. In 2018, Arianna Huffington famously wrote an open letter to Elon Musk. In it, she said, “Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them.”
Remember your REM sleep
In REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, your brain waves mimic the activity experienced while you’re awake, while your closed eyes move rapidly from side to side (hence its name). If you wake up during a particularly weird, vivid or colourful dream – you were probably in REM sleep.
You may find that you do your best work first thing in the morning. Research suggests that could be because most people have their longest REM stage sleep just before waking up. Part of creativity is the ability to find patterns. Both a Harvard Medical School study and research by Lancaster University found that subjects were far better at solving problems and puzzles after waking up from REM sleep than when tested after non-REM sleep.
University of California research aimed to quantify creativity using a Remote Associates Test (RAT). Researchers divided test subjects into three groups prior to taking the test. The first group of volunteers could rest but not sleep, the second group was left to slip into non-REM sleep but woken up before REM, and the third was allowed to get to the REM stage. Those in the resting and non-REM groups showed no increase in creativity as measured by RAT, while the third group of people recently woken from REM sleep showed an increase in creative thinking ability. All of these studies support the advice – ‘sleep on it’ – when faced with a tough problem.
A creative dream team
The dreams you have in REM sleep are the dreams you’re most likely to remember when you wake up. And when it comes to providing ideas or solutions for creative projects, they’re a treasure trove waiting to be mined.
It may be that if you can improve your ability to recall dreams, you’ll sleep better and enhance your creativity. This 2016 study discovered just that. Researchers used the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking to measure subjects’ baseline creativity, then split them into two groups. Each day for 27 days, the control group answered questions to help them remember an event from the day before. And each day the experimental group was asked to recall their dreams from the previous night. This group did much better in creative testing over the control group.
In 2018, Penelope Lewis and her colleagues at Cardiff University even proposed a theory that explains how REM and non-REM – the two main phases of sleep – work together to help us solve complex problems by letting our brains connect unrelated ideas and reorganise existing knowledge frameworks. Which in turns fuel creative problem-solving. This article in The Atlantic does an excellent job of explaining the neuroscience behind the theory.
The bottom line: good quality sleep will always support creativity because it replenishes the energy and brainpower you use up during your busy day – like recharging a battery. So it does seem that getting a creative edge is something you can do with your eyes closed.