Can Sleep Improve Creativity?

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A lack of good quality sleep  stymies creative thought. When I was 41 I nearly died, and as a result I suffered a bout of  depression. All I remember about that summer was that I slept through it. When I emerged I went into creative overdrive, writing drafts for four books and half a dozen scripts in the space of a few months. It was as if I had been hibernating and rebuilding my strength. Since then I’ve been concerned about getting good sleep.

But in London its difficult. This city is not New York; it’s the City That Sleeps, from around midnight to 6:00am, when the traffic suddenly seems to start up en masse. It’s also a naturally dark daytime city, with cloud covering the buildings for at least part of every day. To confuse matters, at night Piccadilly Circus now has eye-searing LED displays that turn the streets to daylight, and buildings everywhere are being uplit in a way that reminds me of Bangkok city centre. The announcement that we are to get 250 new residential high-rises means that the little darkness we have will soon be vanquished.

The loss of London darkness is regional. Live in the western part and you can see the stars; it’s only the northern and central areas which are affected. As my apartment is glass I have blackout blinds but they’re ineffectual, and my sleep quality is atrocious. In peak summer, when it’s only fully dark for about 3.5 hours, my ability to then sit and create something from nothing all but vanishes.

Last week I was in Barcelona, a city of surreal sub-tropical brightness, I went to bed and slept for 8 hours, then rose and wrote solidly for 12 hours without a break. I have neighbours above, below and on either side of me. One does her laundry at 1:00am, another plays selections from ‘Lord of the Rings’ on her piano late at night. No problem – I slept like I died. Why?

Apartments there are designed to keep out the fierce light. They’re constructed like tunnels that connect the front of the building with the back, with windows in centre quadrangles to provide airflow, so you can sleep in a cool dark room in mid-summer without closing any blinds at all, and sleep comes easily. If architects knew how to design out bad sleep in the 19th century, why are they now building glass boxes without dark rooms and air-flow?

Sleep changes the way you write. It helps to designate one room as a sleep area and keep it purely for that – no reading or emailing in bed. If you work at home you can follow your body’s natural rhythm and sleep for two shorter periods a day. It works because the first part of your sleep is the deepest. As you slowly surface, REM kicks in and you dream, then wake. With two sleep sessions you get two deep sleeps.

Creativity can’t be ignited by flashcards in or any other writers’ manuals promising to kickstart your thinking. Throw them away. And TV screens will kill your ideas stone dead. The key is to accept as much outside input as possible. You have to listen a lot and walk a lot, but also read beyond your normal sphere of comfort. I’m currently reading several books recommended to me by strangers, and finding fresh ideas by mixing what I read with what I experience.

I wear a Jawbone bracelet which uploads to my phone and measures the amount I walk each day, and the depth and length of my sleep. It works because you always try to beat your previous target. It will also warns you when you’ve become slothful. Music helps to ease you into a creative mood as well.

The main thing is to keep writing constantly, day and night, over and over, until you are sick of reading it back and are actually forced to climb out of your chair. Sleep, music, walking, talking, reading, absorbing, and above all, constant production – I suppose it all seems rather mundane but it really does work. There are no miracle elixirs for creativity.

2 comments on “Can Sleep Improve Creativity?”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    That sounds like a good formula with exercise, outside stimulation,
    and writing, writing being the keys. Knowing when to stop writing is also necessary, and when to go to bed for a reset.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    What you’re describing, Chris, is a healthy life style – provided you add meals in there. The darkness for sleeping is important, probably, and perhaps the building architects didn’t worry about light because London has little sunlight and anything else is “controlled”?

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