Mind, Love, Wellness

How creativity is linked to sleep

More reason to get some shut eye!

If you wanted to pull an all-nighter to finish a project, you may want to rethink that decision. Why? Besides getting enough sleep is likely a good decision health-wise, there’s some evidence that suggests that creativity, at least partially, is linked to sleep.

Humans generally go through five phases of sleep: stage 1, 2, 3, 4 and rapid eye movement (REM). REM sleep is a phase of deep sleep observed in humans and other mammals. According to Tuck Sleep, “our brain waves mimic the activity experienced during your waking state and your eyes move rapidly side to side while remaining closed” during REM sleep. REM sleep is generally thought to boost creativity. Researchers at University of California, San Diego found that participants in one of their studies were found to be 40 percent more creative after REM sleep when completing problem-solving tasks.

If that’s not enough to convince you, here are some examples of people who cite their creativity and accomplishments to sleep. When she was 18 years old, a dream inspired Mary Shelley to write her celebrated classic Frankenstein. The tune to “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney is a dream.  Last but not least,  Otto Loewi figured out how to prove the role of acetylcholine as an endogenous neurotransmitter (try saying that ten times fast!) in a dream, which led to him winning a Nobel prize. So, if you want to write a celebrated book, a hit song, or win a Nobel prize, you may want to make sure that you are getting enough sleep.

Besides creativity, lack of sleep can also harm other aspects of our ability to do work. Thomas Balkin, PhD, director of behavioral biology at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Silver Spring, Md, explains that lack of sleep can impair our ability “to concentrate for a sustained” amount of time and our memory may be affected, so some of us “may have trouble holding multiple things, like three or four numbers, in your head at once.”

There seems to be a stereotype that “creative geniuses” are insomniacs. This stereotype seems to be incredibly harmful. Us creative types always seem to be balancing a million and a half projects. We’re trying to work through burnout after burnout. But sacrificing our sleep probably won’t be worth it in the end.  Besides evidence that REM sleep, or deep sleep, can help us be more creative, we should take care of ourselves to be able to continue to keep doing what we love.

Getting enough sleep is easier said than done. Between insomnia, health-issues, and having to get many tasks done on a tight deadline, it may feel impossible to get enough sleep. Writer Meghan Lannoo, wrote in The Tempest that she used to be “plagued by insomnia,” but was able to find methods to help her sleep. For her, these were exercising during the day, limiting her caffeine intake, turning off all screens an hour before bed, not forcing herself to sleep, and visualizing herself asleep. While these tricks won’t work for everyone, they’re definitely a start.

Now, next time you embark on your next creative project, make sure that you’re getting enough sleep. Who knows – maybe you’ll get an idea in a dream!

  • Julia Métraux

    Julia Métraux is a journalist whose work has appeared in Narratively, The Tempest, BUST, and Briarpatch Magazine.