How sleep makes us more creative

25 Oct 2019

We all have our own ways of trying to solve difficult problems. When all else fails, chances are you’ll decide to sleep on it and start again tomorrow.

At the time, this might feel like you’re just giving up for the day. But there’s more and more reason to believe that maintaining healthy sleep habits is an effective strategy for creative thinking.

We know that our sleep and circadian rhythm have an important impact on our health and wellbeing. But what about its impact on our creativity?

There are plenty of famous stories to illustrate the link. From The Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ to the theory of natural selection, some of the most important scientific ideas and great works of art were created in sudden moments of inspiration after waking from sleep.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that our understanding of the building blocks of nature is thanks to some shut-eye.

One evening after working late into the night, Dimitri Mendeleev nodded off at his desk, exhausted. The Russian chemist was struggling to find a way of ordering the elements. He was obsessed with the idea that there must be a hidden logic to the universe. He had written each element on a set of playing cards and would spend hours shuffling and rearranging the deck in an attempt to solve the puzzle. When he woke up at his desk in the morning, he suddenly saw the pattern. After years of frustration and failure, everything fell into place and the periodic table was born.

Until recently, these sleep inspired ‘Eureka!’ moments were just anecdotes. But there’s a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the link between REM sleep and creative problem solving. We now understand that healthy sleep habits have yet another benefit: intelligent information processing.

When we sleep, our minds build connections between distantly related pieces of information that are not obvious in the light of the working day. One study at Harvard Medical School found that participants were 15-35% more likely to solve difficult anagram puzzles when emerging from REM sleep. Sleep scientists have proven that during deep sleep the brain seeks out distant, non-obvious links between memories and thoughts.

Businesses spend millions attempting to foster creativity. But the answer could be simpler and much less expensive. Employers should be promoting the benefits of healthy sleep; they should be building cultures and environments to suit our circadian rhythm.

From our working-hours to our intake of natural light, we should all be more concerned with how our lifestyle impacts our sleep. Our creativity depends on it.

Here at LYS, we’re committed to tackling sleep disruption. Find out how changing your light habits can improve your sleep and energy levels throughout the day.