No sleep and its effect on creative thinking

Have you heard about this story? Paul McCartney wrote the hit Beatles song “Yesterday” while he was asleep.

McCartney dreamed-up the entire song, then awoke and rushed to a piano to record it. Afraid that he may have gotten the idea for the song from something he had actually heard earlier, while awake, he spent a month asking people if the melody sounded familiar. It didn’t. But those he spoke to did agree that the song was powerful.

So The Beatles recorded the song in-full in 1964 and since then “Yesterday” has become one of the most covered songs in the history of music.

It’s incredible to think that a single idea dreamed up one night at random could become so impactful on culture for decades. Even McCartney had no idea that he would have gone to bed that night and then woken up hours later to write a historical hit song. Perhaps there’s more at play here than what’s on the surface.

We know that some level of fatigue can be good for feeling creative – a common reason you’re more creative at night – but what about insomnia, or a complete lack of a good night’s sleep? If McCartney showed that sleep could help generate a powerful song, would he have come up with an even better idea if he was tired?

If a fairly low level of exhaustion in the brain (comparable to a drink or two of alcohol, or hours of boredom at work) can instigate more creative ideas, what would happen if you stayed up all night? Even for multiple nights in a row?

If McCartney had stayed up, with absolutely no sleep, for 72 hours, would that have made “Yesterday” even a bigger hit?

As it turns out: sleep was the critical factor that allowed McCartney to come up with the song he did. Going without a good night of sleep not only hinders your regular thinking abilities (like how to safely maneuver a car or even how to have a conversation), it also greatly damages your ability to think creatively.

Here’s how it works.

Sleep is ideal for brainy maintenance.

There’s a natural need for neural networks in your body to go into a type of “maintenance mode” once a while, in order to make repairs, cleanup any signals that just happen to be firing still, and – most important for creativity – consolidating memories.

Memory consolidation (where certain synaptic structures are either physically changed or strengthened, i.e. how we remember someone’s name), and synaptic network stabilization (where the synapsis technically refresh their connections), have to occur in our bodies cellular networks for a number of reasons.

The consolidation process, above all else, helps ensure our survival. When neural networks are strengthened and the information they process becomes more and more repeating in the brain, it’s invisibly flagged as vital information. This makes retrieval of the information in the future easier to access (since the connections directing to that information are so strong).

Some researchers believe that these immensely powerful connections are genetically stored in our very DNA. They can be sighted and attributed to things like a new borns desire for mother’s breast and even the act of regulated breathing. So strong connections are important, and the brain makes sure that it performs the maintenance required to consolidate information (amongst other things) on a regular basis.

There’s simply no way around it.

In creativity this type of consolidation and neural strengthening is key as well.

It’s through connections in the brain that any ideas form. The more powerful connections draw attention and the broader connections instigate original thought.

There’s a whole lot of really interesting science that takes place when the brain begins these maintenance tasks. I strongly suggest reading up on memory consolidation, synaptic network stabilization, and long-term potentiation if you ever find yourself with time to spare. Fascinating stuff. But alas, our journey continues here.

Some of the effects of the body’s maintenance mode you may be familiar with.

There’s an initial consolidation process that takes place within an hour of first encountering or learning something, where concepts are sent initially to your hippocampus and then later moved to your neo-cortex for preservation.

When this type of activity happens you’re not going to physically experience it (in-fact, it’s likely happening right now) but because those areas of your brain will be in heavier use during the consolidation, you may feel a mental sluggishness or the effect of day dreaming.

With enough energy in your body, these maintenance tasks go just as they should.

Here’s the thing though.

Your brain (and other networks in your body) are going to perform their maintenance tasks no matter what. With or without sleep.

Occasionally, when your body is running low on energy, you’ll feel like you can’t focus or like thoughts are seemingly slipping away from you. More often than not: that’s your neural network trying to maintain itself. If push comes to shove in the brain, the things that matter most (like breathing and being on the lookout for predators) are going to take up precedence in your brain’s function.

Without enough energy to use on all of the tasks that need to get done, the brain will reserve consolidation and repairs and stabilizing until safety can be guaranteed and energy is restored.

Research has shown that sleep happens to be the absolute best time for these processes to take place. Primarily because the maintenance is synced with other processes in your body automatically.

So when you sleep: not only are you not gathering new information that needs processing (and therefore using more of the brain’s resources and energy), but you’re also in a very idle state physically and can therefore forget about burning energy, or having to stay on the constant alert for any type of danger. There’s a lot more science to it than just this, of course, but we won’t get into it all today.

In short: sleeping makes your brain’s job of cleaning up memories, sorting through ideas still floating around the neural network, and doing any repairs on damaged connections, easier.

At night, when not much else is going on, maintenance and rest are ideal. So our bodies have adapted to follow that routine.

This helps explain why we often wake up in the middle of the night with a solution to a problem we experienced earlier in the day. Through sleep, your brain has the energy and focus to sort through everything that needs to be sorted through.

More often than not the absolute best way to solve a problem or find a solution to a stressful situation in your life is to try and sleep on it. It’s really that easy.

When you lose sleep your brain has to fight other processes in order to do what it was designed to do (in terms of maintenance and observation).

Yes, in the initial phase of fatigue you stand a better chance at generating creative ideas and doing interesting things – when ares in your frontal lobe are beginning to lose energy and you become less judgmental about what’s going on – but as the hours pass by and your brain (and body) start to need more energy to perform maintenance tasks, your ability to think creatively (or really at all) are going to diminish.

Eventually the brain will be so desperate for maintenance that you may start hallucinating. That is, of course, if your body itself can stay awake without any energy to fuel it.

What’s the best way to be creative then?

That depends on your situation. If you’re in the middle of a project or problem and really stumped on it, or if you’re finding it hard to concentrate on the task at hand, getting a good night’s sleep is going to help a lot.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a project to start or feeling in the grove of things, a little fatigue might be enough to spur additional creative thoughts.

At the end of it all, however, your body and brain needs sleep in order to work efficiently. If you’re used to staying up all weekend to paint, or if you’ve been writing a novel for the past 72 hours and feeling great, remember that you may be just too tired to realize all of the creative potential you’ve overlooked.

So whatever situation you’re in: try to get some sleep every now and then. It’ll help boost your creative potential in the long run, and if you’re lucky maybe you’ll come up with a revolutionary idea while you dream too.

For what it’s worth: I wrote this article after only two hours of sleep. Photo by Phil and Pam Gradwell.