In his book on memoir writing, Stephen King wrote that “a regular sleep pattern can encourage our wakeful minds to unlock the similarly creative imaginations we access in our sleep.” It turns out, King was right. But how does it work?
While we often associate creativity with the arts, it also has a scientific explanation. According to Dr. Sara Mednick, assistant professor at University of California, Irvine, and a member of the Sleep Research Society,
The ability to make a connection between what you already know and something you just learned requires your brain to take a creative leap. That’s where quality Zs can be your superpower.
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Not all sleep is created equal
Not just any type of sleep can help you channel your inner Da Vinci. According to Dr. Mednick, it’s all about REM, a deeper sleep characterized by rapid eye movements. It occurs several times throughout the night, and each phase gets progressively longer.
A study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences backs up the benefits of REM for creativity. Researchers found that while quiet rest has its place (it helps improve factors like mood and alertness), REM plays a crucial role in memory and the ability to associate ideas.
But don’t worry: Naps are still fair game. “You can still get REM sleep from naps,” says Mednick. According to the National Sleep Foundation, you need about 90 minutes of sleep before REM kicks in and has any significant effect on your creative abilities. The moral of that story is: take longer naps.
When parents are away, neurons will play
When you think of REM sleep, picture your neurons having a party. Your brain doesn’t have to play by the rules that the outside world imposes.
When you’re asleep, the restrictions of reality are away on vacation, and your brain gets to let loose. “You’re asleep, so you’re not actually taking in information from the outside world, but your brain is still very active,” says Mednick. And it’s the fact that your brain gets to experiment like this that’s thought to encourage creative thinking and improve the ability to make new associations.
Just keep dreaming
According to Mednick, this is also what results in dreams. “Great,” you might be saying. “I never remember my dreams.” Well, good news: It doesn’t matter.
Mednick explained that it’s not necessary to remember your dreams to get the benefits of REM sleep. “As long as the REM sleep process occurs, you’re going to have more ability in waking to create associations that you didn’t have before,” she says.
It’s less likely that you’ll wake up with a brilliant idea your dream spelled out for you (though it sounds stellar, and surely it happens for some people). Regardless, just allowing your body to experience the REM state improves how you think, and increases your ability to see things in a new light – an essential process for creative thinking.
Waking up to a new you
Finally, there’s the sheer fact that sleep replenishes you. On the most basic level, good sleep helps your body restore the resources it needs to function optimally.
“A well-rested brain thinks better,” says Mednick. “That’s the reason we need both wake and sleep to follow each other – because we’re resource-limited.” Add on the fact that good ol’ REM helps you better associate unlikely ideas, and you may be feeling inspired to change your sleep habits right about now.