Creativity And Sleep: Are You More Creative When Falling Asleep?

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Eureka moments rarely come to us when we have a pen and paper ready. It seems by nature that brilliance loves inconvenience. Our best ideas manifest in the shower, during a drive, or right as we’re drifting off to sleep.

Thomas Edison understood the link between creativity and sleep well. Even though he claimed to never get more than four hours of sleep a night, he would frequently take short naps holding orbs in his hands. He hoped that when he was about to fall into deeper sleep, he would drop the balls and wake up in time to catch his next great idea.

What’s the Connection Between Sleep and Creativity?

While it may sound odd, there is some science to back up Edison’s method. Studies have found that the first phase of sleep—called N1, or non rapid-eye-movement sleep stage 1—brings about a brief state of creativity and insight. By abruptly waking up from this liminal stage between sleeping and being awake, we may be able to harness that creative power before it disappears.

Edison isn’t the only famed name who successfully hacked his way to innovation and artistic success. The plot for The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to novelist Robert Louis Stevenson in a dream. Paul McCartney supposedly heard the entire melody for “Yesterday” while in deep sleep. And even professional golfer Jack Nicklaus claimed to have finally corrected his golf swing while dozing off.

What do all of these stories have in common? They all took place during hypnagogia, the transition state between wakefulness and sleep. This drowsy state is characterized by hypnagogic hallucinations: brief, dreamlike images or sounds that can be perceived as reality.

Science has found that hypnagogic states are a goldmine for creativity and problem-solving. One study from the Paris Brain Institute gave a group of participants a math problem to solve. The problem had a hidden rule that, if found, would allow the participants to solve the puzzle more quickly.

The participants who couldn’t solve the rule within 10 minutes were told to relax and lay down in a dimly lit room while holding an object. If they fell asleep and dropped the object, their immediate thoughts were recorded. Subjects who woke up before deep sleep were able to find the hidden rule three times more than those who either stayed awake or went into a deeper sleep.

While more research needs to be done to understand why hypnagogic states are so beneficial, it’s clear that there is a strong link between creativity and sleep.

How to Use Sleep to Harness Your Creativity

Not everyone has the time or autonomy to take creative power naps whenever they feel stumped. However, there are some things you can do to increase the chances of having a productive hypnagogic state.

Keep a Journal Nearby

Waking up in the morning (or even the middle of the night) with a great idea is one thing. Remembering that idea is another.

To increase the likelihood of recalling your hypnagogic epiphany, keep a journal and pen next to your bed. This way, you can quickly jot down any thoughts or images that come to you while you’re in a drowsy state.

Go to Bed Later

There’s evidence that people prone to night dimension—a fancy word for being awake late at night and asleep in the morning—possessed more creative thinking and originality. Studies have even found that those so-called night owls tend to be more alert than those who go to bed early and wake up early.

So, if you’re someone who does your best thinking at 2 a.m., try to work with that natural sleep cycle instead of fighting it. As long as you’re still getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep a night, you should be fine.

Take a Creative Power Nap

If you find yourself in need of a quick burst of creativity, take a cue from Edison and try taking a power nap—or at least start to.

Here’s how:

  1. Get comfortable and relaxed in a chair with a back tall enough to rest your head. You can also use a couch or your headboard if you’re lying down.
  2. Hold something in your hands that will make a loud noise when it hits the floor, like a set of keys or a handful of coins.
  3. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Inhale for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, and exhale for eight seconds.
  4. As you start to feel drowsy, let go of the object in your hand.
  5. Wake up and jot down whatever it was you were thinking about before you woke up.

It’s not guaranteed that you’ll have a brilliant idea or that you’ll even fall asleep. But be sure to set an alarm for 20 or 30 minutes just in case you don’t wake yourself up. Sleeping longer than a half hour can disrupt your regular sleep cycle and make it harder to fall asleep at night.

Improve Your Sleep Hygiene

Despite what the struggling artist trope might have you believe, creativity and good sleep quality go hand-in-hand.

While teasing your brain with sleep may bring out some good ideas, you still need deep, restorative rest to perform your best. N1 may give you a few insights, but REM (rapid eye movement) could give you revelations.

Research has found that during REM, your brain forms connections between unrelated ideas and finds innovative solutions to problems. So, if you want to be as creative as possible, make sure you’re also getting quality sleep by:

By following these tips, you can improve your sleep quality and increase your chances of finding your creative flow.

Takeaway

Sleep is so much more than just a time to rest your head. It’s when your brain processes information, consolidates memories and comes up with its best ideas. So, if you’re feeling stuck, try implementing some of these sleep hacks to jump-start your creativity. And who knows, your next big idea might just be only a few winks away.

Sources

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Cai D, et al. (2009). REM, not incubation, improves creativity by priming associative networks. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2700890/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). How Much Sleep Do I Need? https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/how_much_sleep.html

Good News for Night Owls. (2009). https://www.science.org/content/article/good-news-night-owls

Kanazawa S. (2009). Why night owls are more intelligent. https://personal.lse.ac.uk/kanazawa/pdfs/paid2009.pdf

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Mayo Clinic. (2022). Napping: Do’s and don’ts for healthy adults. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/napping/art-20048319

Stetka B. (2021). Spark Creativity with Thomas Edison’s Napping Technique. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/thomas-edisons-naps-inspire-a-way-to-spark-your-own-creativity/

Wagner, U. et al. (2022). Sleep inspires insight. https://www.nature.com/articles/nature02223.epdf

Yong E. (2009). Sleeping on it – how REM sleep boosts creative problem-solving. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/sleeping-on-it-how-rem-sleep-boosts-creative-problem-solving