The Science Of Sleep, Creativity And Insomnia

What drives human progress? 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.

Read also: Sleep And Creativity – A New Theory

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

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.”

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. 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 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.

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