How Being Better Rested Can Make You More Creative
If you’ve ever felt especially inspired to try something new, pick up a paintbrush or just tackle a work challenge with renewed energy after a solid night of sleep, you know the power of quality sleep for creative brainpower. According to a 2021 study published in the journal “Science Advances,” spending even a short amount of time in the first stage of sleep, which is the fleeting sleep-wake transition also known as non-rapid eye movement (NREM) 1, can triple creative problem solving.
How Sleep and Creativity Are Connected
Creativity is often loosely thought of as imaginative or original expression with artistic connotations. But more broadly, scientists and psychologists define creativity as the ability to find new ways of solving useful problems. This could apply to social dynamics, work issues, or general problems that exist in life or in theory. By prioritizing the quantity and quality of your sleep, you may be directly improving your odds for a burst of creative energy.
A study in the journal “Cognitive Brain Research” found that dreaming (which usually occurs during rapid eye movement [REM] sleep) is linked with increased cognitive flexibility and abstract reasoning skills. Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D., author of “The Power of the Downstate,” has conducted extensive research on the link between quality sleep and our ability to be creative. On a recent episode of the podcast “Chasing Sleep,” Mednick explained the importance of NREM sleep—particularly deep or slow-wave sleep—for creativity, due to memory consolidation and brain cleaning. “And that stuff happens in the first period of the night … that's really the one that is doing all the brain cleaning and doing all the memory consolidation, all your protein synthesis and all this really important restorative stuff that keeps you young,” she said on the podcast.
Mednick also dispelled the notion that creative people are night owls functioning best in the wee hours, explaining that having heavy NREM at the beginning of the night, with the bulk of REM occurring at the end of your sleep, balances the creative process. “[T]hat mixture of having this kind of non-REM first and then REM is actually very, very important for being able to process these creative ideas, but also process your emotions and process your memories and really learn from yourself in a sort of a healthy, creative way,” she said on the podcast.
While there are many studies that suggest more shut-eye can boost creativity in myriad ways, your own experience has likely mirrored the science: More solid sleep can help your brain process with more dynamic, insightful, imaginative energy. “Sleep can boost creativity in a variety of ways,” says Dr. Chris Winter, neurologist, Mattress Firm advisor and author of “The Rested Child” and “The Sleep Solution.” “First and foremost, it facilitates motivation, a critical component to being innovative. It bolsters memories and improves the synthesis of these memories, allowing an individual to more easily call upon past experiences and information to pull from in creating new ideas and concepts. It also heightens mood and optimism, allowing an individual to more easily overcome obstacles, creative dry spells and other roadblocks in the creative process.”
There is, of course, a wealth of research to back up Winter’s and Mednick’s expert assertions. According to a study published in the journal “Sleep Science,” sleep deprivation severely affects motivation, suggesting that in order to feel the impulse or drive to be creative, it’s essential to get good rest. Sleep is also essential to form, store and consolidate memories, all of which are important for conceptualizing and executing novel theories and notions.
Anyone who’s ever experienced a dreaded creativity drought, whether hitting a mental wall working on a project or running into writer’s block tackling an assignment, knows that a positive emotional outlook can help rev the creative engine—and of course, sleep quality is directly correlated with mood (and, incidentally, vice versa). All these facets and more are necessary for creativity
How Do Dreams Affect Creativity?
Just about everyone has had the experience of waking up from a particularly peculiar dream in which all sorts of unlikely events occur and disconnected characters and ideas interact in odd environments. All the weird, absurd and sometimes scary visions that occur during slumber are an excellent indication that your imagination is getting a workout.
“I think dreams in some individuals can be inspiring or lead them down certain pathways of thought that they would not have typically followed,” Winter says. “I’m a believer that dreams are a massive cognitive sandbox that allows us to subconsciously work on problems that might be thwarting creativity, so paying attention to these dreams can occasionally offer clues for ways around mental roadblocks.”
While scientists have long known that the dreams that occur during REM sleep are key to bolstering and reinforcing creative prowess, a 2023 study published in “Nature” supports the idea that the first sleep stage (Stage 1 or NREM 1), the transitional period between wakefulness and sleep, may be the ideal sweet spot for the brain to truly hit its creative stride. According to the study, individuals who take brief naps (which allow them to access transitional sleep) received higher scores when tested on several measures of creativity than their counterparts who stayed awake. The researchers also found that they could influence the direction of participants’ nap-time dreams toward specific topics—and in doing so, improve their creativity when later tackling tasks related to that topic.
All of this suggests that dreaming—at any point in the sleep cycle—can have a significant impact on your ability to think clearly, effectively and yes, creatively.
How to Improve Your Creativity With Sleep
While there are many takeaways from the research, the most important action you can take to improve your creativity is to improve your sleep. “I would start with more exercise during the day, a more consistent sleep schedule and making sure that the quantity of sleep is sufficient,” Winter says.
But if you’re in a time crunch and hoping to get the creative juices flowing sooner than later, can a few solid nights of sleep really do much to improve your imagination? According to Winter, you might be surprised by how quickly you’ll see the impact of a commitment to better sleep on your cognitive abilities. “Depending on the situation, the changes and improvement could be immediate,” he says. “Ditching your five-hour sleep routine for a solid eight every night could radically improve creativity.”