Paul McCartney first heard the melody of Yesterday in a dream. John Milton claimed to compose his epic Paradise Lost with the help of his “muse,” the voice that dictated more than 10,000 lines of poetry to Milton in his sleep. Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein hatched wild ideas during power naps. So did Salvador Dalí. James Cameron says the ideas for Terminator and Avatar came to him in dreams. Why have so many creative people throughout history placed a special emphasis on sleep?
There’s even an article on Wikipedia dedicated to sleep-derived insights, many of which—like the structure of the atom and the idea of the scientific method—changed everything. Is it mere coincidence that so many inventors, artists, and visionaries find inspiration in sleep (or intentional sleep deprivation)?
According to Michael J. Breus Ph.D. in a piece in Psychology Today, lack of sleep “disrupts levels of chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and cortisol, that affect thought, mood, and energy,” “leaves key areas of the brain in an ‘always on’ state of activation,” and “activates genes that interfere with optimal brain activity.”
Business leaders from Jeff Bezos to Arianna Huffington, as well as companies like Google and Zappos, are coming around to the somewhat counterintuitive idea that sleeping more can help us get more done. They’re encouraging employees to take their sleep as seriously as they take their work, because they believe that in the end, sleep enables employees to do more (and better) work in less time.
Yes, you can still do work and have ideas when sleep deprived. But you’re much less likely to do great work or have big ideas.
And yes, many breakthroughs have come during sleep deprivation. Many of us have worked on a problem hour after hour, late into the night, only to be hit with a sudden solution. And it’s possible for new ideas to arise from a lack of sleep: when we get tired, we lose focus. Our minds wander. Our rational faculties dim.
This slow unraveling of logical thought can contribute to sudden inspiration or new “connections.” It’s common for creatives to intentionally pursue this effect of sleep deprivation.
But sleep deprivation may not be the smartest long-term strategy for mental performance.
When you fall asleep, you enter into a series of sleep cycles that are programmed to last for about eight hours. This can be roughly divided into thirds, each about two hours and 40 minutes.
After about 90 minutes, you enter your first phase of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. REM sleep, which is when most dreams occur, is so vivid and intense that the brain freezes the limbs in temporary paralysis to save the body from acting upon what is being dreamt. If you’ve ever woken up and felt locked in place, unable to move, it was likely because the REM-induced paralysis outlasted your sleep.
But REM sleep phases are not evenly distributed throughout sleep. Periods of REM sleep are longer and more frequent during the last third of the night, which means that by waking up after six hours, you’re losing the two hours richest with REM sleep and dream activity.
And that’s a miserable strategy if you’re trying to maximize productivity. In study after study, REM sleep has been linked to creativity and learning (see here, here, or here, for example).
During REM sleep, as beautifully described by Ed Yong in his article for The Atlantic, “That Greek chorus of neurons that sang so synchronously during non-REM sleep descends into a cacophonous din, as various parts of the neocortex become activated, seemingly at random. Meanwhile, a chemical called acetylcholine”…“floods the brain, disrupting the connection between the hippocampus and neocortex, and placing both in an especially flexible state, where connections between neurons can be more easily formed, strengthened, or weakened”(emphasis mine).
It’s becoming increasingly clear that, although there are some super-humans that claim to be at their best after just a few hours of sleep a night, they are an extreme minority. Study after study links decreased sleep to decreased mental function. A recent meta analysis (a study of studies) found that not getting enough sleep impairs short-term memory, complex attention, processing speed, and more.
To make matters worse, sleep-deprived people can’t feel the cognitive disadvantage. Like a buzzed friend at the bar who has clearly had too many drinks but genuinely believes they’re fit to drive home, a person who is moderately sleep deprived doesn’t feel the effects, despite measurable decreases in mental sharpness. In fact, sleep deprivation can be a bigger cognitive impairment than being legally drunk, according to a study published in Nature.
Researchers are still working to fully understand the roles that REM and non-REM sleep play in creativity, learning, and memory building. They still have lots of unanswered questions. But almost all of them agree on one thing: if you care about productivity, mood, creativity, health, athletic performance—even moral judgement—you might want to think about getting more sleep.
About Trevor Stauffer
Trevor unites a passion for clarity with a love of beauty in his approach to writing.
His academic mastery of great writers gave him a strong foundation in classical writing skills, and his time teaching English in Spain taught him to strip language down to a basic, universal essence. For Trevor, writing isn’t just about communicating well – it’s about communicating beautifully.