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.

Why you’re more creative at night and how to reproduce the effect

If you find yourself feeling a bit more creative at night when you’re tired, you can thank your circadian rhythm.

There’s a lot more to it than that, but let’s start there, with your sleep/awake cycle.

Due to cultural norms: the majority of us follow a routine that has us up with the sun and asleep with the moon. We wake up, go to work or school or the kitchen, and get on with our daily routine. Then comes “quitting time,” where we conduct our regular behavior to prepare for bed and (with any luck) sleep.

It’s a routine that has gone on for hundreds of years and influenced how different regions of our brain act during various hours of the day as a result.

One specific area of the brain that starts to get a little finicky as we get tired is the frontal cortex.

This part of the brain is one from a group of regions responsible for things like attention, planning, rewards, and (most importantly for this article) working memory.

What’s working memory? It’s the system where data (in the form of input from your senses) is brought into the brain, interpreted, and sorted accordingly. Everything you hear, see, taste, smell, and touch goes through the frontal lobe and is processed and sorted based on a lot of various criteria.

When you start to get tired – say, just before bedtime, late at night – that’s the result of your body producing chemicals that block dopamine receptors in your brain. Chemicals like adenosine, which interact with the central nervous system and offset dopamine’s reward/energetic signal, are produced throughout the day to interact with the dopamine receptors and producers. The result? A feeling of exhaustion or simply a lack of energy.

Your frontal cortex happens to be a major dopamine hub. In-fact: it’s the hub for processing dopamine.1

So, as a result of burning through all of your energy during the day and having your body produce just the right amount of chemicals to tell your brain: “Hey, running low on energy here, why not get some sleep?” your frontal cortex starts to lose steam. It doesn’t shut-down completely, but it definitely isn’t involved in processing everything going on around you.

Without the frontal cortex to continuously focus on new, incoming information from the world around you, other parts of the brain (the ones that still have a little bit of energy left in them) are free to run like normal and generally wreak metaphorical havoc.

Exhaustion, it appears, can spur creativity because, frankly, you just don’t give a damn.

Instead of worrying about perfecting whatever it is you’re working on (that novel you’ve been slowly tinkering with or the big presentation for tomorrow at work) your brain ends up running wild, accepting ideas and paths of thinking that might otherwise be stopped in your frontal lobe and stamped with a big “not ideal” mark.

An important email comes your way while you’re in the middle of painting or playing an instrument or brainstorming cool names for your business? Doesn’t matter, the frontal lobe has checked out (so to speak).

Of course: this response takes place at night typically because that’s when you’ve trained your body to be tired.

There are still people out there who aren’t more creative at night (and likely not tired at night, or even the type of person who sleeps at night), so it’s important to remember this vital tidbit of wisdom: your creative response at night has nothing to do with the time of day, but everything to do with your energy cycle.

You get tired at night? Your frontal lobe is missing some vital energy signals, and therefore you’re going to end up being slightly more creative than regular.

Not surprisingly: the same creative response your brain has to getting tired is the exact same as when you drink alcohol.

Alcohol inhibits the frontal cortex, almost identically to how pure exhaustion does. If you want to reproduce the effect of exhaustion on your creativity all you need to do is have a few drinks.

Not too many, of course, because the more you drink the less other critical thinking functions have to keep going. The trick is to drink just the right amount of alcohol.

How much is just right? That depends on your body, but typically two beers is a good starting point.

Not into drinking? Fret none: just work on getting yourself worn down during the day and by the time night rolls around, open up your work and see if any creative ideas come about.

Or, according to additional research, you can produce similar affects by just being bored and letting your mind wander.

Now, while exhaustion and drinking (and general boredom) are all great for creativity, it’s important to note that – because they’re blocking your working memory and your brain’s ability to sort through lots of various information – both should be avoided when it comes to crunch time (or operating heavy machinery, or driving, or doing anything that requires analytical thinking).

Of course, if you want the reverse effect of all that exhaustion or drinking: have a cup or two of coffee.

Source: 1. “Neuromodulation of thought: flexibilities and vulnerabilities in prefrontal cortical network synapses.” Arnsten AF, Wang MJ, Paspalas CD

Night photo by kronerda.