Sleep keeps the heart healthy, stress at bay, memory in tact and mental health afloat. But, on top of all that, research suggests it also helps us think more creativity and ignites our ability to problem-solve.
If you’re a night owl and think all your best ideas come to you when you’re hunched over your laptop at 2 a.m., you might want to think again. In general, most of us need sleep to be our truest, edgiest, most creative selves.
Here’s why – and how – sleep can make you the creative genius you’re destined to be.
Before we get into the science of sleep, let’s talk about creativity. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, you are a creative person (I’m looking at you, math nerds). Everyone is! Expressing ourselves is just a part of being human.
Creativity isn’t some holy grail solely accessible to the painters and sculptors of the world. Whether you’re a salesperson, a computer programmer or a zoologist, everyone uses and applies creativity to their job, and the rest of their lives, on a daily basis.
Without creativity, we’d have no books, no art, no iPhones, no Instagram, no “Shark Tank” – you name it. Pretty much everything we use and do on a regular basis started with a single creative idea. Have I sold you on creativity yet? Moving onto sleep.
Think about a time you tossed and turned all night long. You probably weren’t in the greatest of moods the next day. That’s because sleep is essential to maintaining our emotional wellbeing – and our mood has a lot to do with our creative output.
“A good night’s sleep is heavily associated with general happiness the next day,” said Matt Johnson, a researcher and professor of psychology at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. “Being in a positive mood is heavily associated with gestalt, big picture thinking – which itself is associated with creativity.”
When we’re low on sleep, we’re more likely to feel stressed, anxious or fearful. These negative emotions cause our amygdala – the part of our brain that processes emotions – to shut down the brain so it can help the body protect itself from harm’s way. As you can imagine, there isn’t a lot of creative thinking going on when this happens.
Furthermore, when you’re sleep deprived, your mind and your memory become fatigued. You’re low on general cognitive resources, according to Johnson, which are needed to think critically and retain information.
“Even if a great idea happens to come to you, you’d be less able to think clearly about it, and you’d be much more likely to forget it,” Johnson said.
Now, when we snooze, our brains piece together unrelated ideas, which, in turn, facilitates creative problem-solving.
“During the deepest levels of sleep – also known as slow wave sleep – the brain is busy organizing and consolidating thoughts, ideas, and memories,” said Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health expert and the founder of Insomnia Coach. “During REM sleep, when dream activity is particularly high, our minds tend to make connections between otherwise unrelated ideas and events.”
Think about a time you had a dream that, upon waking up, made absolutely no sense – like the time you dreamt you were driving a hamburger to work.
It was then that your brain was making abstract connections, because the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that controls our critical thinking – is turned off during sleep.
Now, not all of these connections are as useless as a hamburger car. Oftentimes, our brain makes connections that can lead to a creative “eureka” moment, Reed said.
“The fact that sleep is so important for cognitive health is probably why the phrase ‘sleep on it’ came into existence,” he said.
If you have a problem that seems insurmountable – maybe at work or with your relationship – a good night’s sleep might be in order. Call it a night and take advantage of sleep’s ability to help you creatively work through problems and identify new solutions.
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Unfortunately, many of us aren’t the best sleepers. Approximately 50 to 70 million adults have some sort of sleep disorder, according to the American Sleep Association.
If you suffer from a more serious issue – such as sleep apnea or night terrors – it’s definitely worth speaking to a physician. But if you simply have a hard time falling asleep and staying asleep, there are a few helpful things you can try.
First of all, avoid using electronic devices at least 20 to 40 minutes before going to sleep, said Amy Korn Reavis, a clinical sleep educator based in Orlando, Florida. The blue light that’s emitted from our phones and tablets inhibits our bodies’ production of melatonin – a hormone that manages the sleep-wake cycle.
Next, set the temperature in your bedroom to a cooler temperature, as your body temp drops as you sleep.
“If you have trouble going to sleep, try taking a warm shower,” Reavis recommended. “As you dry off and your body temperature drops, it will signal your brain that it is time to go to sleep.”
It’s wise to avoid watching TV or reading in bed, as you’ll begin to associate your bed with these activities rather than sleeping. Reavis also suggests de-cluttering your room, and, of course, getting comfy (the more pillows, the better).
It might take some time to develop a solid sleep routine, but doing so is the golden ticket to conking out.
If you’re stuck overthinking a particular problem or can’t seem to wiggle out of a creative slump, see if a long snooze can do the trick. You may very well wake up to your best idea yet.
Julia Ries is a writer based in Los Angeles. When she’s not writing, there’s a good chance she’s doing yoga, walking her dog or doing yoga with her dog. Get to know her at www.juliaries.com.