Sleep and Creativity

Welcome back to the Creative Life Adventure.

As a lifelong insomniac, I looked forward to reading Benjamin Reiss‘ 2017 book Wild Nights: How Taming Sleep Created Our Restless World. I wasn’t disappointed.

Wild Nights is not a book about how to get a better night’s sleep. Instead, it’s a cultural study of the history of human sleep, with emphasis on the 19th century through the present day. It turns out that our one-size-fits-all approach, of only one or two people sleeping in a room by themselves, in one straight eight-hour block of time, is relatively new in human history. Technology has disrupted our sleep through devices that compel us to stay constantly connected at the same time we try to use that technology to better study and manage our sleep patterns. Sleep has become an entire industry, with a multitude of sleep aids, sleep clinics and studies, and endless varieties of pillows and mattresses to make us more comfortable. One could fill a library with the many books written to help parents “train” their children to sleep alone through the night.

Global capitalism hasn’t helped our sleep patterns much, either. By outsourcing service centers to countries in other parts of the world, a customer in the U.S. might be helped by someone working the night shift thousands of miles away. There have always been certain professions where night work is expected – healthcare, for example – but increasingly knowledge workers and others are subject to erratic schedules. Experts tell us we’ll sleep better if we keep a consistent schedule, while our economy tells us we have to accommodate business at any hour.

Photograph of buckwheat pillow with vellum pad and art supplies
Creativity and sleep are closely related

One thing I found fascinating is how technology has been disrupting our sleep since the early days of the newspaper, telegraph, and train. Early newspapers created anxiety about keeping up with current events, much as social media does today. Train routes that crossed a vast nation required scheduling time in a more rigid way than people had been accustomed to before. Artificial light created more opportunity to be away from home at night. Television and radio brought entertainment, followed closely by advertising, into our homes at all hours.

I’ve always been a light sleeper and have experienced periods of insomnia throughout my life. As a very young child I was afraid of the dark and kept a nightlight by my bed (in fact, as the linked study indicates, shortsightedness – my optometrist called it nearsightedness – was the first way my vision started to weaken). As I got older, my fear of the dark vanished – in fact, I came to love sitting outside stargazing at night – but I kept the nightlight. My parents insisted on a strict bedtime and I figured out I could use the nightlight to read comic books in bed during sleepless nights. Smart phones with built-in lights were still decades away. We don’t have cable at our current home, and one of the few thing I miss about television is its ability to help me sleep when I’m tossing and turning at 3AM.

For years this lack of sleep caused me considerable anxiety, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more accepting of it as part of my life experience. I’ve tried to make better use of the time I’m awake during the night by reading or streaming a movie. I learned later that by doing that I was accidentally mimicking “first sleep” and “second sleep,” which used to be the norm for a lot of people at one time. Maybe it’s no surprise that worrying less about sleep leaves me feeling more rested.

Sleep can be a unique proposition for creatives. We need to be rested to focus on our work. But inspiration can strike at any time of the day and night. There is research indicating that both REM sleep and non-REM sleep are mutually important to creativity. Even our dreams can provide inspiration. Here are a few tips to integrate creativity and sleep:

If you have trouble sleeping, try physical solutions before pharmaceutical sleep aids. Medications, even herbal supplements, can cloud your thinking. Sleep masks, white noise, and more comfortable mattresses or pillows, are some of the tools available to you. I recently switched to a buckwheat pillow – it’s essentially a bean bag chair for your head. It’s not for everyone, but is more comfortable for me than a conventional pillow. White noise – via a fan or a free app – and guided sleep meditations on Youtube have also been beneficial for me.

If you do try sleep aids from the drug store, start small and proceed with caution. Check with your physician or pharmacist first, even if you are using an over-the-counter product. Look in to possible interactions with any other medications or supplements you might be taking. I’ve used valerian root and chamomile tea occasionally with some success.  Results for the same product can vary among individuals. Remember that even if a product is natural or organic, it can still have harmful side effects. Do your research and begin with low doses.

Your sleep is important, so treat it that way. Experiment and collect data. Do you sleep more soundly with a different pillow? What is your sensitivity to light or sound? Do different alarm sounds make it easier for you to wake up? You won’t find out what works without trying different approaches. You don’t need to go to a sleep lab to perform these kinds of simple experiments. You don’t need an app, either.  A simple sleep journal will get you started.

Arrange time for naps if and when possible. This is not a practical solution for everyone, but you might be surprised what you can do if you really look for the time. I nap occasionally and feel that it improves my productivity – there is evidence to back this up.

Napping isn’t just for the dogs

If you can’t sleep, don’t just toss and turn in frustration. Try reading a book or going for a walk. Sometimes I stream a movie or TV show that I enjoy but that I’ve already seen. That way I can be less mentally engaged and fall asleep more easily.

Be attentive but try not to worry. This is a form of mindfulness (or, one interpretation of mindfulness, at any rate!). If you can observe your sleep patterns without giving in to anger or anxiety, you’ll be in a better position to figure out what changes you need to make. And any anxiety you experience might be one of the things keeping you awake. This approach will enable you to make a more informed decision about how serious your lack of sleep might be, and whether or not you need to consult a health professional.

Always be prepared for new ideas. Dreams, or that twilight time between sleep and wakefulness, might be a source of inspiration for a current or future project. I often think of ideas for my fiction projects right before falling asleep or right after waking up. I always have a pen and notepad next to the bed for that reason. Don’t assume that you’ll remember that brilliant idea that came to you when you were half-awake. Force yourself to write it down before it’s gone forever. (This isn’t just true at bedtime – if writing materials aren’t available I use the Notes app on my phone to record ideas.)

Insomnia is no fun, I can verify that from experience. By reducing anxiety levels and taking a systematic approach to troubled sleep, you might find your life, and your creative work, becoming less of a nightmare and more of a dream come true.

One thought on “Sleep and Creativity

  1. Thank you for your post. I love sleeping but so many elements are distracting! It’s right, that good sleep help with creativity… But if inspiration attacks in the late evening it might disturb it. It’s important to rest afterwards though. I find my late night thoughts more wild but less organized, which doesn’t fit all types of creativity.

    Liked by 1 person

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