Let’s sleep on it some more… How sleep and creative thinking are connected. Part one.

A guest blog by Vanessa Longley.

Last year, as part of my MSc in Innovation, Creativity and Leadership studies I wanted to understand more about the connection between sleep and creativity. You may have read my previous blog about creativity in sleep and whether we could use our inherent night-time creativity to increase our creativity problem solving in waking life.

More than 100 UK managers worked with me to develop real world ways to get great ideas from a better night’s sleep – and the good news is that it works! Of those who tried the suggested techniques, 100% reported finding more creative solutions for work related problems (measured as increased ‘solvability’), as well as showing increases in the quality and quantity of sleep.

So, what’s the problem?

My interest in sleep started after my daughter was diagnosed with sleep maintenance disorder – a nero-disability meaning she requires far more sleep that you or me. On average she sleeps an extra 35 hours a week compared to her peers, you could say that sleeping has become her full-time job.

I’ve been fascinated by whether we might make sleep an enhancement of wakefulness – so time asleep is not just a necessity but becomes a useful part of who we are.

The research backed up my personal experience of just how busy we are nowadays with 95% of surveyed managers feeling they need more creative solutions for work-based problems – the barrier is time (or lack of it) with almost 70% feeling they don’t have time to complete their daily ‘to-do’ lists let alone come up with new approaches to old problems!. In fact, if you’re anything like the average modern worker you always have too much to do and too little time, and that’s before dashing home to feed the dog, think about going to the gym, get some laundry done…and then log-on again to finish that final report. And in the meantime, your boss is telling you that the organisation needs to be more innovative, that you need to be more creative…

…so exactly when are you going to fit that in?

And nearly three-quarters of those asked said their mind is still buzzing before they go to bed – not helped by the fact that over 80% of them keep their phone by their bed, switched on with notifications coming through 24 hours a day (compared to only 10% of participants who have a clock!!!)

Why doing more isn’t doing better

But sleep isn’t the luxury we make it out to be. As humans we can survive for more than three weeks without food, but only 8-10 days without sleep. Yet as a society we are obsessed with the idea of proving ourselves good employees through long working hours. But the more work (and less sleep) we have, the less efficient we are. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) research in 2017 showed across the world’s richest countries, lower working hours correlates with higher productivity AND workaholism leads to: poor sleep, depression, burnout, depression, anxiety, recurring stress-induced headaches and stomach aches. The neuroscientist Matthew Walker feels we are facing a “catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” because: “We have stigmatised sleep with the label of laziness. We want to seem busy, and one way we express that is by proclaiming how little sleep we’re getting. It’s a badge of honour. We chastise people for sleeping…We think of them as slothful”.

Practical perception of sleep has often been as a: “passive, dormant part of our daily lives” (American Sleep Association, 2017), yet far from an interruption in activity, sleep is vital for effective functioning of the human body. Studies with astronauts show disruptions in the circadian clock and sleep jeopardize mood, cognition and performance. Whilst most adults can manage challenges of short-term sleep deprivation, over a longer timeframe: “SD [sleep deprivation] impairs decision-making involving the unexpected, innovation, revising plans, competing distraction and effective communication” (Harrison & Horne, 2000). This is particularly important for those interested in high creative performance at work, as Harrison and Horne’s (2000) research shows innovation is particularly impacted by poor sleep.

Sleep and creativity

The correlation between sleep and creativity has been known as long as we have had ability to record our thoughts. Inherent creativity, shown through sleep in the form of dreaming, has fascinated humans through the ages; from dream records in Ancient Mesopotamia, through the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint Denys – the first to try to apply the scientific method to study lucid dreaming, to Jungian theories around the role of dreams integrating our conscious and unconscious lives. Throughout belief exists that within the creative experiences of sleep something useful occurs, that within dreams: “there must be a utilitarian aspect to these creative thoughts, or else they are simply just random firings of the brain” (Patel, 2014).

The development of scanning and imaging technology has allowed us to explore these ‘random firings’ more closely. Certain types of sleep state where you move between dreaming sleep (called Rapid Eye Movement or REM) and Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) sleep has been shown to increase fluency, flexibility and originality of thought. Deirdre Barrett’s research published in 2001 shows we can direct our sleeping brains to work on problems we want to solve. Simply by focussing on the issue, over 50% of people found useful creative solutions to their problems during sleep.

The idea our sleeping brain may allow us to become better creative problem solvers is controversial, not least because so many have invested so much to develop problem solving methods for the waking world. The idea of simply ‘relaxing and having a nap’ seems counter-intuitive for those who have built careers on claiming creative problem solving is a skill that must be learned, with theorists like Blagrove’s stating: “…the place for problem solving is the waking, social world”. This however dismisses increasing evidence to the contrary from researchers such as Wagner et al where: “twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule after sleep as after wakefulness, regardless of time of day”,

But not all sleep is equal! To maximise the usefulness of creativity in sleep it is important to reconnect to measurement of sleep itself.   It is within a certain type of active dreaming state (REM sleep) that individuals increase creative problem solving by up to 40% (Cai et al, 2009). Further work by Arico et al (2010) and Kirov et al (2015) show that whilst REM sleep remains crucial, it is the multiple transitions between REM and NREM sleep that increases fluency, flexibility and originality of thought, improving creative problem solving. Therefore, it is the process of a good night’s sleep, which creates a ‘useful’ night’s sleep; beyond merely creativity within a dream state.

Why the sloth approach may offer greater productivity…and creativity

We all instinctively know that a good night’s sleep must be good for us, but society puts pressure to work harder for longer each day. Hard work, long hours and reacting to everything instantaneously reminds me of the meerkat approach – but I am recommending we model ourselves after something much more laid back…Sleeping more…and working fewer hours may just be the answer if you want to be more creative, successful and healthy! The sloth is our model here: napping for up to 18 hours a day. I’m not advocating doing nothing – quite the opposite. I’m suggesting you trust the research – by resting more you will be a better more creative fundraiser.

Vanessa Longley is the Director of Fundraising and Communications at Havens Hospices. In her ‘spare’ time she looks for new ways to bring creativity into everyday working practice…and is working hard on getting a solid 8 hours sleep every night.

For how this all works check out part two…coming soon…

2 Comments on “Let’s sleep on it some more… How sleep and creative thinking are connected. Part one.

  1. This is really interesting, as sleep deprivation, is attuned to performance, I remember going to bed and thinking have I done everything today and what about tomorrow?

    What I found valuable was to sleep during the day at work,(20 mins) switch off phone & blinds down, it worked.

    Now I relax before going to bed and switch everything off as sleep is important, however I sometimes wake up and write a few things down in note book, and wake up and wonder what it was ?

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