The science of sleep, creativity and insomnia

Sleep Junkies takes an in-depth look at the complex relationship between sleep, creativity, and innovation.

What drives human progress? How did we manage to leap-frog the evolutionary ladder to become the most successful species this planet has ever witnessed? How did we create a society that is so complex we can now build machines that think for themselves?

Some would say it was all about opposable thumbs and the use of tools. Or human language. Or the transition from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian society. Or the discovery of fire, which enabled cooking, in turn gifting us large brains.

Whatever your opinion, each of these uniquely human developments have one thing in common. They were all borne out of the process we call creativity.

Humans have been indulging in abstract art for millennia, long before the earliest known complex civilisations emerged. Cave paintings in Europe and Indonesia date back at least 40,000 years. But that’s recent history compared to the recent discovery of geometric patterns carved on a sea shell estimated to be over half a million years old.

So creativity it appears is an essential component of the human experience. But how and why it this the case? Is the creative process governed by behaviour or is it hard-wired into our DNA? Like most big questions, there are no easy answers.

However, in this article we’ll attempt to shed just a little light on the subject by looking at another universal aspect of the human condition, the inextricable link between sleep and creativity.

Art and Music

On the face of it, surrealist painter Salvador Dali and Beatle’s pop legend, Paul McCartney would seem to have little in common? However, one thing they share is that, along with many other creative artists, they have both paid testament to the mysterious creative forces that can take place whilst asleep.

According to McCartney, the melody to Yesterday, the most covered song in history, was not a product of sweat and toil, but popped into the Beatle’s head,  fully formed after waking one morning:

“I got out of bed, sat at the piano, found G, found F sharp minor 7th – and that leads you through then to B to E minor, and finally back to E…I liked the melody a lot, but because I’d dreamed it, I couldn’t believe I’d written it.”1

Surrealist painter Salvador Dali realised the creative benefits of sleep but took things a step further, inventing his own method to harness the creative power of sleep . This involved him sitting in a chair whilst nodding off and holding a metal spoon in his hand.

Drifting between wakefulness and sleep, Dali  would enter into hynogogia, the altered state of mind where many people report witnessing hallucinations.  But as soon as Dali fell asleep, he would lose grip of the spoon, which would then clash to the floor, promptly waking him up so he could then capture the lingering dream imagery.

Many other creative artists credit sleep as aid to creativity including author Stephen King, whose bestseller novel Misery came to him in a nightmare during a flight on Concord . Similarly, blockbuster director James Cameron has admitted that his concept for The Terminator originated in a fever dream.

Defining and measuring creativity

Coming up with a generic definition of creativity is almost impossible. The word encompasses a huge range of concepts and processes. The late Steve Jobs famously said that creativity is ‘just connecting things‘. Educator and TED speaker, Sir Ken Robinson offers a different perspective, saying it’s “the process of having original ideas that have value“.

Meanwhile, psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, who has spent 30 years researching the subject makes a distinction between little-c creativity, ie everyday problem solving, and big-C creativity, ie game-changing breakthroughs, often made by practitioners who are eminent in their field of expertise.

In scientific studies, the most common way to ‘measure’ creativity is called the Torrance Test. This method separated creative thinking into discrete elements. Some of these metrics include  fluency (amount of ideas), flexibility (type of ideas), originality (uniqueness) and elaboration (level of detail).

Another concept that scientists refer to when studying creativity is divergent thinking, the practice of generating ideas in a non-linear fashion, and insight, which describes the ‘eureka’ moment.

‘Sleep on it’ – science proves the myth

The science of sleep, compared to other fields, is a relatively new field. Hence many myths about sleep still pervade the public consciousness. Until very recently, the advice ‘sleep on it‘ – ie to take a night’s rest before attempting to resolve a difficult problem – seemed to be one such type of folk wisdom.

However in 2004, a piece of research in the journal Nature appeared to offer some empirical evidence to back up this widely held belief.

In a study simply titled Sleep inspires insight, Ulrich Wagner and associates devised an elegant experiment in which participants were trained to solve a type of math puzzle.

After completing a series of puzzles, they took an 8 hour break, then came back and attempted another round. During the break, some participants stayed awake whilst others slept.

The clever part of the experiment involved a hidden ‘shortcut’ which made solving the puzzles considerably easier. None of the participants knew of the existence of such a shortcut but those who slept in the break were twice as likely to make the discovery and hence solve more puzzles.

Sleep stages and creativity

Normal sleep consists of two basic states, rapid eye movement (REM), where most dreams occur,  and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.  Some researchers believe that these very distinct processes may have different effects on our ability to undertake creative tasks.

REM sleep

In 2009, neuroscientist Denise Cai and her team tried to delve deeper into the connection between REM and creativity.  The researchers achieved this by putting subjects through a series of ‘creative problem solving’ tests. The participants were then split into groups and tested after a period of REM, after a period of NREM and after no sleep.

The hypothesis, that REM would enhance a subject’s problem solving ability, was proved correct. The researchers found that compared to NREM or no sleep at all, REM improved test performance by almost 40%. Summing up, the researchers proposed that,

(REM is) “important for assimilating new information into past experience to create a richer network of associations for future use.” 

NREM sleep

Whilst Cai’s research focussed on the effects of REM, elsewhere researchers have looked into the benefits of NREM sleep to creative problem solving.

A Brazilian study in 2014 using a 3-dimensional video game puzzle found a positive association between problem-solving and NREM. The research suggests that this may be because NREM and REM sleep are associated with activity in different regions of the brain – which may later affect an individual’s performance in particular types of problem solving tasks.

Cai’s REM study, for example relied on the temporal and frontal lobes. Whilst the Brazilian study involved processing spatial and visual information, which depends on the hippocampus region of the brain.

A separate study looking at NREM, examined how different phases of sleep can influence different types of creativity.  In the 2010 study, Italian scientists using the Torrance Test, found that Stages 1 and 4 of NREM sleep  were associated with higher scores in fluency (generating many ideas), flexibility (generating ideas from different perspectives), and originality (generating unusual ideas).

Lead researcher Victoria Drago proposed that this may be because NREM sleep temporarily relieves you of the waking stress that comes with tackling tough problems, which may facilitate more opportunities to “think outside the box.” The study concluded that

(NREM may) “enhance the ability of people to access to the remote associations that are critical for creative innovations.”

Napping for inspiration

Although there’s still a great deal of stigma about ‘sleeping on the job’, the nap it seems is enjoying a bit of a renaissance. Forward thinking institutions including universities and companies such as Nike and Google, are starting to offer opportunities for employees and students to take nap during the day, to counter the growing crisis of 21st century sleep deprivation.

This shift in attitudes tracks a growing body of research demonstrating the many physiological and cognitive benefits of taking a nap.

Sara Mednick, a sleep researcher at the University of California who has published several studies and written a book praising the virtues of napping says that individuals need to tailor their nap according to specific needs.

According to Mednick, a 10-20 minute nap will provide a quick boost in alertness, whilst a 60 minute nap which includes slow-wave NREM sleep, will boost your cognitive memory processing. For maximum benefit however you need to nap for 90 minutes, the length of a full sleep cycle, whic Mednick says which aids creativity and emotional and procedural memory.

Sleep or sleeplessness?

So far we’ve looked at scientific and anecdotal evidence that suggests sleep is good for creativity.  However some believe that the gateway to inspiration may lie in the opposite direction – a lack of sleep.  But is there any evidence to suggest why tiredness or insomnia might trigger the creative process?

Creative insomnia

Insomnia is a debilitating, sometimes chronic condition, but this hasn’t stopped generations of artists, from Proust to Coldplay  heaping  praise on the creative benefits of sleepless nights.

Lisa Russ Spaar’s 1999 anthology, Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, demonstrates the legendary power of the night to inspire . Bringing together great poets from the Western literary heritage including Shakespeare, Rimbaud and Shelley, as well as verse from Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Inuit, Vietnamese, Tamil, Yiddish, and Romanian poets, the collection shows how insomnia has been a universal source of creativity since classical times.

However, beyond the anecdotes, there’s little empirical evidence linking insomnia with creativity.

A small study in 2013 titled Tired minds, tired ideas? Exploring insomnia and creativity produced mixed results. The researchers concluded that insomnia had a small and positive effect on divergent thinking (generating creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions). This, however only applied to those who reported sleep difficulties at night. Those with daytime sleep impairments were “slightly less creative”, the study concluded.

Creativity and insomnia – cause or effect?

Another study in 2006 by Dione Healy and Mark A. Runco set out to explore the creativity/insomnia link by comparing sleep disturbances in a group of children from New Zealand. According to Healey, “creative persons are often highly energetic”….. devoting “huge amounts of time and effort to their creative work”.

The researchers gave questionnaires to “30 highly creative children” and 30 control children. 17 of the highly creative children reported sleep difficulties, compared to only 8 in the non-creative group, suggesting the author’s hypothesis that “creative ability may affect an individual’s sleeppatterns.”

The results, although significant raise an important point about the causal relationship between creativity and insomnia. Are creative people more likely to be insomniacs?

Or is it the other way around, ie an active, creative mind is more likely to suffer a higher incidence of sleep difficulties? Until more research is completed this cause-effect relationship is likely to remain a mystery.

Can tiredness make you more creative?

So if the jury is still out on insomnia’a creative benefits, what about just being plain tired.  We usually associate ‘aha’ moments with a state of mental alertness. But recent research suggests that when it comes to certain creative acts, the opposite may be true – ie we’re more likely to have a breakthrough when our brains are sleepy, tired and fuzzy.

A 2011 study published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning  found that subjects were better at solving certain creative tasks at the time of day when they were most sleepy.

The experiment took a group of participants, some of who were early chronotypes (morning people) and some who were late chronotypes (evening people). The group then took a series of tests at various times of the day.

Some of the tests were ‘analytical problems’ (such as sudoku) where you have to ‘grind out’ the answer and some of the tests were ‘insight problems’, (such as a riddle) which require a ‘eureka’ type moment to solve.

The researchers found that for analytical problems, time of day made no difference to test performance. In contrast however, participants showed greater insight problem solving performance at a non-optimal time of day.

Meaning, owls, who are typically more active in the evening, were better at solving insight problems in the morning. Conversely, larks, who are more active in the morning, were better at solving insight problems in the afternoon and evening.

These counter-intuitive results lend some weight to the idea that having a slightly sleepy brain might actually benefit some types of creative tasks. The study concluded that “tasks involving creativity might benefit from a non-optimal time of day.”

Why do sleepy brains think more freely?

One of the ways that tiredness can bring about ‘eureka’ moments is a brain function known as  ‘inhibitory control – a kind of a cognitive ‘filter’ which suppresses irrelevant or distracting sensory information, allowing our brains to focus on the task at hand. Problems with inhibitory control can contribute to a range of psychiatric disorders including ADHD, OCD and Tourettes’ Syndrome.

When we are tired and sleepy, the ‘distraction filter’ fades away. Mareike Wieth, one of the study authors explains,“This less focused cognitive state makes people more susceptible to think about other, seemingly unrelated information—like things they experienced earlier or their to-do list,”

She goes on to say that “this additional information floating around in your mind during your nonoptimal time of day ultimately helps you reach that creative aha! moment.”

Delirium and dreams

Weith’s explanation may account for the famous anecdote of Russian scientist Dmitry Mendeleev, who in 1869, had been struggling for three sleepless days to devise a meaningful was to order the known chemical elements according to their atomic properties.

In his sleep-deprived delirium, Mendeleev saw a ‘vision’ of what later became the Periodic Table of Elements, which underlies the field of modern chemistry. Although some sceptics still question the full story,  Mendeleev’s sleep-deprivation and subsequent ‘aha’ moment fits our modern understanding of cognitive inhibition and creative insight.

Summary – an elusive truth

As we’ve discovered, there are multiple overlapping theories about sleep and creativity and our knowledge is far from conclusive.  Researchers acknowledge that many aspects have yet to be examined, and existing  studies are limited by small sample sizes.

We do know however that creativity and insight happens in several stages, and the neural processes that occur during sleep affect multiple parts of the brain.

But as to how and why, sleep (or lack of it) impacts on creativity , it seems for now, at least there’s no black-or-white answer. It is clear however that both sleep and sleepiness contribute to creative insight in mysterious and powerful ways.

Image credit: Flickr/Dima Bushkov

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