Sleep and Creativity

Sleep and Creativity

Creativity is often viewed as a birthright that you either have or just don’t—but the truth is, people vary widely in their capacity to be creative, and creativity isn’t limited to artistic expression.

Creative problem solving, or the ability to “think outside the box” and draw connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, is one non-obvious way creativity is expressed in humans, and research shows that sleep seems to be a significant factor in this type of creativity. If you’ve ever gone to bed wrestling with a difficult problem and woken up with a “eureka!” moment, you know the surprising effect that sleep can have on reasoning.

Read on to learn more about sleep and creativity. 

Does sleep help creativity?

Adequate sleep improves your memory and clarity of thought, which some studies have shown increases creative problem solving and insightful thinking. Many of these studies focus on tasks that require cognitive flexibility, or the ability to think “outside the box.” Even one’s ability to spontaneously create new jokes seems to be positively impacted by getting enough sleep.

What’s the relationship between REM sleep and creativity?

REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, a deep stage of sleep in which the majority of vivid dreaming occurs, is thought to stimulate creative problem solving by helping the brain form associative pathways between neurons. In one study, only a group of people who had achieved REM sleep, compared to two groups that didn’t, were able to solve an “analogy test” designed to measure creative thinking. 

Does dreaming have an effect on creativity?

Dreaming may have an effect on creativity, though given that researchers have yet to come to a consensus regarding the biological purpose and function of dreaming, there’s currently no way to know for sure. Some studies have found that highly creative people remember more of their dreams, while others suggest that lucid dreamers in particular are more creative.

How can I work on my creativity while I sleep?

According to studies conducted by Harvard University psychologist Dierdre Barrett, creative problem solving during tends to occur during deep sleep phases, so it’s important to avoid alcohol and caffeine before bedtime to ensure you reach deep sleep. In addition, contemplating a problem before bed (as long as it doesn’t make you too anxious to sleep) may help your unconscious mind think it through creatively.

Does lack of sleep affect creativity?

If researchers are correct in supposing that your brain’s ability to think creatively is enhanced by deep sleep, it follows that a lack of sleep, or disturbed sleep that leaves you in shallower sleep phases, may hamper your creative thinking. Indeed, some studies have shown that sleep-deprived subjects struggle with creative problem solving.

Does lucid dreaming help creativity?

Some studies have shown a connection between lucid dreaming and creativity. In one study, people who self-report lucid dreaming scored higher on a creative personality scale. In another, people naturally prone to lucid dreaming seemed to not only have larger prefrontal cortexes, but to show more activity in that brain area, which is linked to metacognitive abilities i.e. self-reflection.

Why are we so creative in our dreams?

When you’re asleep, your brain works to process what’s happened to you during the day and integrate new memories with memories you already have. How exactly this occurs is unclear, but it seems that when your regular filter of consciousness isn’t working, your brain is able to freely associate ideas it wouldn’t otherwise in your waking life. This type of associative reasoning is the hallmark of creative thinking.

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