Sleep: what is it good for? Absolutely everything.


Above: Why books are always better than movies?  by Massimo Barbieri, 2009, 

Sleep is the best meditation. – Dalai Lama

It would seem likely that getting enough sleep would be good for creativity. However, there are more ways to use your sleep regime than just getting a lot of it.

Why is sleep so good for you in general? One of the main reasons is that when you have at least eight hours uninterrupted sleep the neurons in your brain move slightly apart to let cerebrospinal fluid literally wash your brain. This helps prevent the sticky plaques that are a cause of diseases like Alzheimer’s, from attaching to the ends of your neurons and destroying the connective synapses. So it stands to reason that keeping those areas “clean” will provide you with the most potential for creativity. Having the optimum eight hours amount of sleep and regular sleeping patterns can also help stave off mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, and can strengthen your general health and well-being and even prolong your life. Creativity is easier to achieve when you are well-rested, healthy and cheerful.

Memory is also boosted by sleep and it has been shown that trying to learn something, say a new language, is helped by revising not long before you sleep. Next day you will recall it more easily than trying to remember it on the day of learning it. A research activity conducted on sleepers found that performances on a well-known test for creativity, making analogies, was performed pretty much the same by those who were awake, those who were in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep and those who were asleep without REM. REM sleep is when you are deeply asleep and dreaming and it is characterised by the darting around of the eyes under the closed eyelids. However, the groups were all secretly primed with words in the analogy test. But only the REM sleepers recalled and used these words the next day. This is thought to be because the deeply sleeping brain removes waking inhibitions to the connectivity of firing neurons, thus allowing a more wide-ranging set of ideas and memories to form, which, of course, is what creativity is all about.

Research has even shown that REM sleep can help you to be as creative as when you are awake. Researchers woke REM sleepers and tested them with ability to solve anagrams. They were as accurate as people who were awake, though it is suspected that the abilities used to solve the puzzle might be different. Those woken from non-REM sleep were drowsy and did not test well. Moreover, when sleeping via hypnosis, people were found to increase their abilities to make jokes. Jokes often use surprising connections as punchlines, which might suggest the sleeping brain is able to make useful connections.

Francisco de Goya, El sueno de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), Spanish, 1746 - 1828, published 1799, etching and aquatint, Rosenwald Collection

Above: Francisco de Goya, El sueno de la razon produce monstruos (The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters), Spanish, 1746 – 1828, published 1799, etching and aquatint, Rosenwald Collection

However, that is not the end of the story. Strange things happen to your creativity when you sleep and when you are drifting off to sleep. Hypnagogia is the mental state you are in when you are just falling asleep. You are neither fully awake nor completely asleep. Many creative people believe that while in this enigmatic state they will find ideas. Edgar Alan Poe used hypnagogia deliberately to search for creepy and weird ideas for his horror stories, as did the surrealist painter, Salvador Dali. Dali sought his surreal half dreams by falling asleep in a chair holding a set of keys. As he drifted off and relaxed they would slip from his fingers and fall on a carefully placed metal plate, so that the clatter would wake him enough to record the visions of his partially subconscious imagination. Dali said he learnt to do this “slumber with a key” from Capuchin monks. The prolific ideas-man, Thomas Edison, performed the same kind of action using metal balls to wake him as they fell from his relaxed hand. This is just a few of the many, many famous creative names who believed that some form of sleep or hynagogia helped them to form ideas.

Other people use the naturally awakening state, hypnopompia, as a way to grasp fleeting and unusual ideas that have manifested during dreams. You may be reminded of the composer who jotted down a wonderful idea for a major musical work, only to find, on checking, that he had just dreamt his country’s national anthem. Dream ideas still need to be checked for usability. Friedrich August Kekule’s benzene shape idea and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein were also generated in this state.

You may have experienced a side-effect of hypnagogia which is known as the Tetris Effect. Some intense activity you have been doing all day, such as playing the moving-block computer game, Tetris, or sailing, stoking a bonfire, coding, indexing books or rock-climbing, is repeated as hallucinogenic sensations as you drift off.

It is believed that the transition from the waking beta brainwaves (which can cause anxiety) to the drowsy sleeping alpha and theta waves can cause the fertile visual and sometime audible “hallucinations” of hypnagogia and – in reverse – that of its sister state of waking-up,  hypnopompia. For a short while the brain is swamped by both sets of waves causing a loosening of its usual conscious control, though the state is not yet proper dreaming. Sleep researcher Sirley Marques-Bonham calls this state “brewing”.

This idea of hypnogogic brewing goes right back to the Incubation stage of Graham Wallas’s model of creativity. During the day we have been preparing our minds by deliberately or incidentally filling them with data. During hypnagogia and dream sleep the brain, while it is thought to be trying to make sense of the day’s data, opens up its connective ability and makes surprising or usually unrelated combinations. You may have looked back at a dream and wondered why two or more elements in it came together in such a surreal way. When we say something is “dream-like” we often mean precisely that it involves oddly combined elements or things that don’t usually occur. This is the very essence of divergent thinking, so it is no wonder that dreams can give rise to powerful new innovations.


Above: Woman with Autumn Leaves, oil painting by Andrew Stevovich, 1994, 36″ x 72″, Private Collection

But there is one more aspect of sleeping that is often vouched for as a productive area for giving birth to ideas and that is insomnia. This seems to go against everything that sleep and creativity stand for. Yet many people find that the nuisance and health-hazard of staying awake deliberately can induce hallucination-like ideas that are very fruitful. The Russian writer, Nabokov, remarked that “sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world.” Others concur, even when their insomnia is not looked for but has occurred in an unwanted fashion. It would make sense to think that in these cases the victim of insomnia is kept awake by his or her mind being so active in seeking ideas that sleep is pushed away and as sleep deprivation worsens, so the subconscious pokes through to suggest “nonsensical” ideas. Again this is a form of divergent thinking, albeit this time of an accidental nature.

There is one more positive aspect to sleep in terms of creativity and that is that is the fact that everything looks different after a good night’s sleep. When a tired person is struggling to cope they are often advised to “sleep on it”. Ben Stein has remarked, “When I seemed to be irritable or sad, my father would quote the learned Dr. Knight, and then say, ‘Just go to sleep.’ Like all smart aleck kids, I thought the advice was silly. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized just how smart Knight was.”

By the same token this fact can help you evaluate your creative ideas and your work in progress. You may have gone to bed the previous night delighted with your day’s work but upon picking it up again the next day you find that a few tweaks are needed (or more). Many creative people suggest that you work hard one day and start the next by checking for corrections or developments. You see things with fresh eyes having put a little distance between you and the act of creation. Your brain has washed and organised itself and is ready to tackle harder problems again.

Activity: The Tetris Effect

Describe an example that you have experienced of the Tetris Effect.

Activity: Hypnagogia

Try to get some ideas by waking yourself up as you go to sleep.

You will be helpful to think about a topic or a questions that you need ideas for or answers to. Prepare your mind by giving this a good deal of consideration and even discussion. Then settle wherever you are most comfortable and likely to fall asleep. Dangle your arm over the chair arm or out of the bed and hold a metal object, like a set of keys or spanner, over a carefully placed metal plate or tray (placed upside down for greatest sound effects and make sure the tray is quite a large one to ensure that the keys land on it). Keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas quickly when you drop the metal object. Hypnagogic ideas can flee away very quickly so don’t delay trying to catch them. As in divergent thinking don’t dismiss or censor an idea before or as you write it down.

This extract is from The Graphic Design Project’s forthcoming major course on creativity, which will be available in August. The course is in three parts, of which Creative Training is the first – an opportunity to boost your creative skills.

Creative training tiltle_copyright _GDP


McKay, Brett and Kate, 2015, Nap like Salvador Dali did, available at

Mosher, David, 2012, How Your Brain Cleans Itself—Mystery Solved? National Geographic available at

Pate, Neel V., 2014, Sleeping on, and dreaming up, a solution, Science Line available at

Schamis Turner, Maria, 2009, Frontier: REM Sleep Stimulates Creativity, The Dana Foundation,

Image references

Barbieri and Stevovich images Wikimedia Commons

Goya images courtesy of NGA Images

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