Thanet Writers Research Sleep and Creativity
Sleep is an incredibly creative endeavour for many writers. It’s not uncommon to see people talk about how they woke up with a fantastic idea for a novel or how their dreams would make good stories. This has happened to me on multiple occasions, both in writing and out of writing. There has been a very interesting study recently that explored the connection between sleep and creativity and I thought it’d be an interesting topic to look further into.
Stages of Sleep
Before we look at what effect sleep has on your creativity, we need to look at what sleep actually is. Sleep happens in cycles, with a usual night’s sleep taking four to six cycles, and each cycle can be broken down into four separate stages.
The first stage is very brief, lasting only a few minutes. This is the opening of non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep and happens when you just start to drift off. It’s incredibly easy to wake up during this stage.
The second stage is when your body starts slowing down. It’s still a light sleep but your heart rate slows and your temperature drops as your body starts preparing itself for the next stage.
The third stage is the final stage of non-REM sleep. This is deep sleep and is where your body will do a lot of the maintenance that it needs to do. This stage is also referred to as SWS (Slow Wave Sleep) and is an important part of how the brain consolidates memory.
The fourth and final sleep stage is REM sleep. This is where you lose the ability to move the vast majority of your body and your eyes move rapidly, hence the name. This is where the majority of dreaming occurs and that’s largely why your body paralyses itself: to stop you acting out the dreams and injuring yourself.
You will go through multiple iterations of these stages throughout the course of the night, with roughly 20% being REM sleep in adults.
Sleep’s Effect on Creativity
With an understanding of the stages of sleep within a cycle, we can take a closer look at what’s happening and why this has an impact on creativity. During the third stage of sleep, deep sleep or SWS, your mind is replaying memories. This helps to make sure that they are stored but also allows your mind to slot new information or understandings into existing knowledge. An interesting point about this process is that it also allows your mind to extract common knowledge from these memories that help to form your general view of something. As an example, if you think of a board meeting you will have a clear view in your mind of what one looks like. The people there may not be clear but you can identify that it’s a board meeting. During the SWS stage, your mind takes memories of the same or similar things and identifies commonalities to form general views or impressions. It is this process that has the greatest effect on creativity by working with REM sleep.
When we leave SWS and move into REM sleep, the brain releases a chemical called acetylcholine which disrupts the connection between the parts of your memory that are working on forming these memories and these connections and, essentially, gives them a bit more freedom to work differently than before. Whereas during SWS your mind was looking for similarly linked memories or ideas to strengthen their bond and form an overarching picture, with the chemical released during REM sleep your mind starts looking to see if there is a connection between anything.
In practice, what this means is that your mind will draw similarities between completely unrelated things and link them—such as a planet’s orbit and the way that electrons revolve in an atom. It’s this kind of drawing conclusions from different elements of our knowledge that’s needed for creativity and creative problem solving.
The actual effect on creativity is largely out of our control for the average person. What you can do—and should be doing anyway—is ensuring that you have a healthy sleep. Sleeping for eight hours a night isn’t healthy if it’s all light sleep and you’re not progressing through the stages as you should. There are countless tools that you can use to keep track of this, but the best one is and always has been whether you feel groggy or not the next day. If you’re struggling with a particular part of writing or writing in general, maybe you need to take a look at your sleep cycle and see if you’re getting enough of the deep sleep to properly facilitate those creative juices flowing. If that’s the case, take a look at your sleep routine to see if any improvements can be made.
© 2019 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.