Why Your Lack Of Sleep Can Make You More Creative
December 23, 2008
It’s a known fact that sleep is essential for proper cognitive functioning, retention, concentration and mental acuity. Now, according to recent research, sleep may even enhance your creativity. According to the article in The New York Times which cites the study, those who slept more showed improved mental agility including the ability to make novel connections between disparate ideas by as much as 33%. As a result of findings like this, corporations that hinge on innovation such as Cisco Systems and Google have installed ergonomic sleep stations called EnergyPods in their corporate facilities.
But what about those people who sleep more than 9 to 10 hours and still feel exhausted and groggy? Why aren’t these sleep mongers waking up wide eyed and bushy tailed, bursting with creative energy? The answer to this seeming disparity depends on where these people lie on the sleep-breathing continuum.
Why Some Need More Sleep While Others Can Do Without
If you are one of those people who wake up refreshed and recharged after a good night’s rest, then your sleep quality is probably the kind that the researchers are pointing to when they say that sleeping more can make you more creative.
However, there are many more people who sleep longer than the usual number of hours (like 9 to 10 hours) and still wake up feeling groggy and exhausted. For them it’s a major chore to get through their day, let alone have the energy to innovate and come up with new ideas. For those of you who find yourself in this situation, it’s probably not the amount of sleep but the kind of sleep you’re getting that’s impinging on your creativity. Here’s what I mean:
Sleep is composed of six stages: awake, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4, and REM (rapid eye movement). Stage 1 and 2 are known as the "light" stages of sleep, REM as the "dreaming" stage and stages 3 and 4 as the "deep" or delta stages. We need a good distribution of all the sleep stages to get the proper restorative sleep we need to be creative.
As I point out in my book, Sleep, Interrupted, many people who suffer from sleep breathing problems like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), are often unable to get past stage 1 and 2 let alone stay long enough in REM or stage 3 and 4 sleep stages to get the kind of quality sleep they need to feel truly rested. The reason why this happens is because their airway is constantly in danger of closing off or obstructing. These people’s airways are smaller than most, which is the result of various factors like having a floppy palate, larger than average tongue to jaw size ratio, or having chronic nasal congestion, just to name a few. (For more information, listen to my podcasts on OSA and UARS)
These are usually the people who feel tired even though they may have slept more than 10 hours. For them, the reason why they’re feeling so unproductive is not because they need more sleep but because they lack the necessary amount of deep restorative sleep they need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated.
The one exception to this rule are those people who are often categorized as the creative class. For these type of people, sleep deprivation is not only a requisite component of their lifestyle but a vital by product of their creativity. Many sculptors or painters will say that a 4 hour session can seem only like one hour. For them, a bout of inspiration can help them forgo all sorts of physical constraints, even sleep. In fact, more than one painter or sculptor have even told me that when they are unproductive, they intentionally sleep deprive themselves mildly to rev up their creativity.
So, you may be asking why is there such a wide discrepancy between those whom the sleep experts say need more sleep to be creative, and those who need less sleep to maintain their creativity? Again the answer to this mystery lies in how well you’re breathing at night while you sleep and how well your body can adjust to the constantly fluctuating sleep deficit.
Sleep Less, Get More Creative
Whenever I see patients who work in traditionally creative occupations, I find, more often than not, that many of them have narrowed upper airways, leading to easier collapse of either the throat or tongue structures while in deep sleep, leading to multiple arousals and inefficient sleep. Many of them also keep erratic sleep schedules, working without sleep one night, and sleeping in all day the next. Yet, many creatives will tell me that they thrive under these kinds of stress and pressure. They say that this is when their senses are most heightened and when they’re the most productive.
This is very similar to what happens when people undergo a mild to moderate form of sleep deprivation. What happens in these situations is that a low-grade physiologic stress response occurs. In fact, the lack of sleep can actually induce hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system therefore enhancing not only their sense of smell, hearing or intuition, but also heightening emotions and creativity. It’s not all that surprising then that many creative types tend to either consciously or subconsciously shift back and forth from getting too much sleep to no sleep at all to maintain their creative drive.
This may be also why those who tend to be creative are often attracted to work that’s not constrained by the typical 9-5 work schedule. According to Richard Florida, in his fascinating book Rise of the Creative Class, this is the reason why so many creative types congregate in metropolitan areas like New York (the city that never sleeps). He suggests that creatives work independent of traditional work conventions, and why innovations like telecommuting, mobile work stations, and global networking, have become so popular in this modern day economy. Florida further argues that this new "creative class" is any person or group of people that uses their intellect and creativity to enhance their work, which includes both the traditional creative types, like actors, writers, and musicians, and even the non-traditional creatives like doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, techies, architects, and interior designers. They are at their best when their time for work, rest and play is shaped by no other standard than their own. Not surprisingly, these creative types won’t or can’t adhere to the good old fashioned 8 hour sleep paradigm. This may be another reason why some people get more creative when they sleep, and some get less creative when they sleep too much.
The Final Word On Sleep
Of course, prolonged sleep deprivation, for anyone can have detrimental effects on your health and physical well being. It’s imperative that if you have a sleep breathing problem to have it treated so that you are getting the requisite amount of deep sleep needed to maintain proper cognitive functioning.
Yet, if you consider the way that the human airway anatomy developed, you’ll see that we are the only mammals that are susceptible to the kind of sleep-breathing problems I describe. This makes me wonder if this isn’t the very reason why sleep makes us more productive and at the same time, be more creative than any other mammal alive. Just something to ponder the next time you have to pull an all-nighter.