Dr Perpetua Neo

Can't sleep? Is nocturnal creativity keeping you awake?

If you’re a creative person whose best ideas pop in at night, but you’re worried about poor sleep again, then this is for you. Years ago, The Best Friend and I shared yet another “Me too!” moment. One of us said “Sometimes before sleeping, I think of how to match this skirt or jacket, and get really excited. I start styling other things. And I can’t sleep for hours”. We were flooded with pure empathy for each other. You see, I love what others call ‘strange’ clothes. And I get a kick out of styling them. Steve Job’s Same-Uniform-Every-Day? Those days ended with college.

But that conversation prickled my curiosity. I started examining other patterns in my life. I found that if I was in a creating mode before sleeping, ideas would gush forth. And everytime I’d drift off to sleep, a new idea would pop up. Whether for writing, business or concepts, it didn’t matter. My brain didn’t discriminate. Result? Can’t sleep.

They told me, "Can't sleep too!!"

So I started asking the creative people around me- the Idea Machines, the designers, the creators. All said the same- when they got creative at night, they could forget about sleeping. Their brains would fire in staccatisimo. It was awesome, but tiring the next day. We’ve heard about how insomnia drives creativity, although it’s anecdotal- like my own research. But I often wonder if it’s creativity at night that may drive insomnia instead.

The neuroscience behind "Can't Sleep!"

For starters, we’re likelier to be creative at night, according to researchers Mareike Weith and Rose Zacks. After a long day, your brain’s overwhelmed. It is harder to filter out irrelevant information. Since creativity is alchemy from combining unrelated ideas, you’re likelier to do so at night. Meaning, the sleepier you are, the freer your brain can think.

Besides, creative mode = active brain. When your brain is being creative, the brain regions involved reflect that active cognitive processes are happening. Not idling. If you’re curious, you’ll see alpha synchronisation in frontal brain areas and parietal cortical regions in EEG scans. Your FMRI scans may show strong activation in frontal regions of your left hemisphere. Little wonder you can’t sleep.

And, how to sleep

How can we apply these, then? When you’re creative, your brain has created momentum and is on a roll. It’s harder to enter sleep state because your brain’s active. What I’ve learned is, when I absolutely need to sleep, I stop all creative processes 2 hours before bedtime. If you’re the type who finds it hard to sleep once your brain’s gotten creative, perhaps you can benefit from this too.

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