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The majority of studies on sleep and creativity have shown that sleep can
facilitate insightful behavior and flexible reasoning, and there
are several hypotheses about the creative function of dreams. On the
other hand, a few recent studies have supported a theory of
creative insomnia, in which creativity is significantly correlated
with sleep disturbance.
of sleep and creativity
Sleep and creativity
sleep as a state of increased cognitive flexibility
In a study on cognitive flexibility across the sleep-wake cycle,
researchers discovered that when woken from REM sleep, participants
had a 32% advantage on an anagram task (when compared with the
number of correct responses after NREM awakenings). This
was consistent with the hypothesis that due to the lack of
aminergic dominance in REM sleep, this particular sleep state is
highly conducive to fluid reasoning and flexible thought.
Interestingly, participant performance after awakening from REM
sleep was not better than participants who stayed awake, which
indicates that in REM sleep, there is an alternative (but just as
effective) mode of problem solving that differs from the mechanism
available while awake.
Participants in a study were asked to translate a string of
digits using two simple rules that allowed the string to be reduced
to a single digit (number reduction task). Out of three groups of
participants (those who slept, those who stayed awake during the
day, and those who stayed awake during the night), participants who
got eight hours of sleep were two times as likely during retesting
to gain insight into a hidden rule built into the task.
Lack of sleep impairs
Some participants in a study went 32 hours without sleep while
the control participants slept normally. When tested on flexibility
and originality on figural and verbal tests, the sleep-deprived
participants had severe and persistent impairments in their
More creativity in humor
Under hypnotic induced sleep, participants were much more likely
to produce paraphrases of jokes that they had heard before and to
spontaneously create new jokes (when compared with their
performance while awake).
Integration of relational
Recent studies have also shown that sleep not only helps
consolidate memory, but also integrates relational memories. In one
study, the participants were tested to see if sleep helped in this
aspect (Ellenbogen et al., 2007, as cited in Walker, 2009). The
subjects of the experiment were taught five “premise pairs”,
A>B, B>C, C>D, and D>E. They were not aware of the
overall hierarchy, where A>B>C>D>E. The subjects were
split into 3 separate groups. The first group was tested 20 minutes
after learning the pairs, the second was tested 12 hours later
without sleep, and the third was tested 12 hours later with sleep
in between. The groups were tested in both first degree pairs
(A>B, C>D, etc.) and 2nd degree pairs (A>C, B>D, or
C>E). The results were that with the first degree pairs, the
first group only performed at around chance levels, and the second
and third groups had significantly better performances. With the
2nd degree pairs, the first group still performed at around chance
levels, and the second group performed at about the same level as
in the 1st degree pair test. However, the third group performed
even better than before, gaining a 25% advantage over the group
without sleep. The results of this study showed that sleep is a
significant factor in integrating memories, or gaining the bigger
Creative insomnia refers to the idea that insomnia can actually spark
Anecdotal accounts of
Proust wrote most of his À la recherche du temps perdu (In
Search of Lost Time) while staying awake in the night due to a
chronic illness. In Sodome et Gomorrhe, he suggests that
"Un peu d'insomnie n'est pas inutile pour apprécier le sommeil,
projeter quelque lumière dans cette nuit. [A little insomnia is
useful for appreciating sleep, for projecting some light into this
- Film maker Alan
Berliner made a documentary on his lifelong insomnia and its
complex role in his creative process.
- "Insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think
or suffer darkly take refuge." - Colette
- "It's at night, when perhaps we should be dreaming, that the
mind is most clear, that we are most able to hold all our life in
the palm of our skull. I don't know if anyone has ever pointed out
that great attraction of insomnia before, but it is so; the night
seems to release a little more of our vast backward inheritance of
instincts and feelings; as with the dawn, a little honey is allowed
to ooze between the lips of the sandwich, a little of the stuff of
dreams to drip into the waking mind. I wish I believed, as J. B.
Priestley did, that consciousness continues after disembodiment or
death, not forever, but for a long while. Three score years and ten
is such a stingy ration of time, when there is so much time around.
Perhaps that's why some of us are insomniacs; night is so precious
that it would be pusillanimous to sleep all through it! A 'bad
night' is not always a bad thing." - Brian W. Aldiss
- Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems (edited by
Lisa Russ Spaar) is a collection of over eighty poems by famous
poets and writers like Walt Whitman, Emily Bronté and Robert Frost,
all inspired by sleepless nights. Fifteen of the poems actually
have "insomnia" in the title.
- "Si les insomnies d'un musicien lui font créer de belles
oeuvres, ce sont de belles insomnies. [If the insomnia of a
musician allows him to create beautiful pieces, it is a beautiful
insomnia.]" - Antoine de
- Vladmir Nabokov believed that insomnia was
a positive influence on his work. He once remarked that "sleep is
the most moronic fraternity in the world, with the heaviest dues
and the crudest rituals."
Studies that support
Although no studies have actually shown a causal relationship
yet, various studies have suggested that the positive relationship
between sleep and creativity to be more complicated and less
clear-cut than previously thought.
- One study with children (ages 10-12) in New Zealand
demonstrated a correlation between insomnia and creative thought.
This study looked at the incidence of sleep disturbances in thirty
highly creative children when compared with thirty
control children. The hypothesis was that there would be a
higher incidence of sleep disturbance in the highly creative
children than in the control children. Results showed that there
was a significant difference between the two groups, with the
creative children reporting more sleep disturbance, therefore
suggesting that creative ability may indeed affect an individual's
sleep patterns. More specifically, out of the sixty children tested
on a standard creativity test, seventeen of the highly
creative children indicated that they had higher levels of
sleep disturbance (compared to only eight of the control
- In another study that examined the interactive relationships
between sleep, fatigue, creativity and personality, participants
were given the Sleep Questionnaire, the Fatigue Inventory, the
Remote Association Test and the Probabilistic Orientation Test. The
researchers found that arousal measures of sleep and fatigue were
meaningfully related to one another, but not to measures of
thinking and of attitudinal orientations. Most importantly, they
found that creativity was not significantly related to any of the
dimensions of sleep.
Studies that reject
- In a series of three studies that analyzed the link between
creativity, dreams, and sleep behaviors, researchers discovered
that (1) participants who were classified as "fast sleepers" (those
who fell asleep quickly) were more likely to score highly on a
creativity test, (2) participants who scored highly on a creativity
test were more likely to solve their problems through dreams and to
fall asleep quickly, and (3) adults in creative occupations have
significantly more dream distortion, visual mentation, and
regressive dream content.
Walker, P., Liston, C., Allan Hobson, J., and Stickgold, R. (2002)
Cognitive flexibility across the sleep-wake cycle: REM-sleep
enhancement of anagram problem solving. Cognitive Brain
Research 14, 317-324
Wagner, U., Gals, S., Halder, H., Verleger, R., and Born, J. (2004)
Sleep inspires insight. Nature 427.
Home, J. A. (1988) Sleep loss and "divergent" thinking ability.
Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine
11;6, pp. 528-536.
Dittborn, J. M. (1963) Creativity during suggested sleep.
Perceptual and Motor Skills 16:3, pp. 738.
Walker, M.P. "The Role of Sleep in Cognition and Emotion." Annals
of the New York Academy of Sciences. 1156. (2009): 181-83.
HBO: Wide Awake -
Brian W Aldiss Quotations
Index : Quotes at Quotatio
Sleep Quotes, Sayings about
Healey, D. and Runco, M. (2006). Could Creativity be Associated
with Insomnia? Creativity Research Journal 18:1,
Narayanan, S., Vijayakumar, P. and Govindarasu, S. (1992).
Subjective assessment of sleep, fatigue, creativity and personality
orientation. Psychological Studies 37:1, 17-25.
Sladeczek, I. and Domino, G. (1985) Creativity, sleep and primary
process thinking in dreams. Journal of Creative Behavior
19:1, pp. 38-46, 55.