The Science of Sleep and Creativity

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Digital painting by Cyril Rolando

Studies link poor sleep with poor health : higher risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, cancer and poor immune system. It’s also associated with poor mental health: sleep deprivation disturbs emotional regulation and increases anxiety. It also leads to unhealthy weight gain, poor food intake and increased risk for metabolic diseases.

Good health simply means good sleep. Read more on this.

There is still research however on how sleep is linked to creativity. How can sleep helps us think of new ideas, perceive the world in new ways, or generate solutions to new problems?

Before going farther, it is important to know the different sleep cycles.

The two main types of sleep are rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and non-rapid-eye-movement (NREM) sleep. On an electroencephalogram (EEG), REM sleep, often called “active sleep,” is identifiable by its characteristic low-amplitude (small), high-frequency (fast) waves and alpha rhythm, as well as the eye movements for which it is named.

The cycles are repetitive. We see typically:

sleep-cycles_cycles

In the illustration above, you can see :

  1. Almost-awake moments corresponding to light sleep. Muscle activity slow down.
  2. Light stage where breathing pattern and heart rate slows. There is a slight decrease in body temperature.
  3. Deep stage, also known as deep sleep. This is where the brain begins to generate slow delta waves.
  4. REM sleep, characterized by rapid eye movement. Brainwaves speed up and dreaming occurs. Muscle relax and heart rate increases. Breathing is rapid and shallow.

During the deep stages of NREM sleep, the body repairs and regrows tissues, builds bone and muscle, and strengthens the immune system. As we grow older, you get slightly less deep sleep and less REM sleep. For example, babies can spend up to 50% of their sleep in the REM stage, compared to only about 20% for adults.

How is creativity linked to REM and NREM sleep?

First, research that sleep without REM cycles is detrimental to creative problem solving (1). Results show a significant decrement in creativity (the Guilford’s Utility Test) due to REM deprivation (4). Simply, those who sleep lightly or who wake up before a REM cycle will be less creative. Those who had REM cycles were able to build remote associations, by assimilating new information and creating a richer network of associations for future use.

On the other hand, a Harvard medical school cognitive research shows that REM sleep awakening promotes creative problem solving (1). Subjects awakened during the REM phase showed 32% advantage in the number of anagrams solved, compared to those who solved anagrams during wake phase or NREM sleep.

Do we have to wake up in the middle of night, and more precisely in the middle of dreams? A study tracking children suggest creativity is indeed linked to “sleep disturbances” (1). Many artists such Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabokov, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry or engineers like Leonardo DaVinci report being inspired by sleepless nights. They describe an immediate, post-sleep, dreamlike mental state – also known as sleep inertia or orhypnopompic state. It allowed them to infuse their thoughts with a pinch of dreamworld magic. No wonder Thomas Edison praised “power naps”, where he benefited from sharp increases in creativity and productivity, just after the short rest period.

What about NREM sleep?

NREM and REM sleep are associated with activity in different regions of the brain.

An Italian study associates stage 1 of NREM sleep (light sleep) with improved fluency (generating many ideas) and flexibility (generating ideas from different perspectives). Stage 4 of NREM sleep (deep sleep) is linked with improved originality (generating unusual ideas) and a global measure of figural creativity (5). The study suggests that NREM sleep is associated with low levels of cortical arousal, which might enhance remote associations in the brain. 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.”

Take-aways

Sleep cycles are complex and there is still on-going research. Early research shows us however that :

  • REM deprivation lowers creativity
  • Awakening during a REM cycle improves creativity. Don’t worry about waking up in the middle of the night, after a dream, or taking a power nap in the afternoon. This can be your most creative moment!
  • The first moments upon waking can be amongst our most creative. If you have an idea, write it down, and work on it.
  • A nap for 90 minutes, the length of a full sleep cycle, can aid creativity and emotional and procedural memory. A 10-20 minute nap will provide a quick boost in alertness, whilst a 60 minute nap which includes slow-wave NREM sleep, can boost your cognitive memory processing. Forward-thinking organizations can offer employees and members the opportunity to take a nap during the day, for cognitive and psychological benefits.
  • While NREM cycle is linked strongly to body repair, it also leads to improved originality, flexibility and figural creativity.

Do you also find you are more creative just after you sleep? Have you tried to harness the creative power of dreams? Let me know below!

References:

  1. Cognitive flexibility across the sleep–wake cycle: REM-sleep enhancement of anagram problem solving. Matthew P Walker, , Conor Liston, J.Allan Hobson, Robert Stickgold. Cognitive Brain Research Volume 14, Issue 3, November 2002, Pages 317–324
  2. Creativity research journal. Could Creativity Be Associated With Insomnia?
  3. Dione Healey & Mark A. Runco Pages 39-43 | Published online: 08 Jun 2010
  4. REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks
    Denise J. Caia, Sarnoff A. Mednickb, Elizabeth M. Harrisona, Jennifer C. Kanadyc and Sara C. Mednickc,1
  5. Cyclic alternating pattern in sleep and its relationship to creativity. Valeria Dragoa, Paul S. Fosterc, d, Kenneth M. Heilmanc, Debora Aricòb, John Williamsonc, Pasquale Montagnae, Raffaele Ferrib
  6. The Effect of REM Deprivation: Is It Detrimental, Beneficial, or Neutral? Isaac Lewin,
    Hanania Glaubman
  7. Hoffart, Marita B. PhD, RN; Keene, Elizabeth Pross MS, RN

2 thoughts on “The Science of Sleep and Creativity”

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