Creativity Ruts and Sleep Health Deficits: A Brief, Research-Based Account
Do you ever feel like you just can’t think? I know the feeling. I sat with this article outline for much longer than I would normally, and a lapse in my sleep health may have been the culprit. I am sleeping much better as compared to when I started this writing series, but let’s discuss what happened.
I recently submitted a major grant proposal, traveled to several academic conferences, and rescheduled timelines for my projects. Even when following the best sleep practices, these sorts of tasks tend to take a toll on my sleep health. These activities often come with a set of sleep disturbances (regarding travel timing and tight scheduling). Writing original prose may seem more difficult when we feel high levels of stress and, consequently, tired.
Deficits in sleep health might precede creative deficits. Research studies have shown that our ability to generate new ideas may be weaker when we don’t get enough sleep and when we don’t sleep well.
Creative Thinking Styles Defined
First, let’s talk about a couple of ways that creativity has been defined. Our thinking patterns may be convergent or divergent. Convergent thinking involves rearranging existing ideas. It’s a derivative type of thinking. For example, one convergent thinking task requires people to reorganize an existing letter set into different words (i.e., anagrams). Creating new words out of existing letters is creative, but it involves using an existing feature and skill set to pull from. By contrast, divergent thinking involves generating new ideas and often requires flexible and open thinking. For divergent thinking tasks, researchers may ask people to come up with multiple ways to use a cardboard box. They have to think of responses without any options to choose from. This thinking style is based on the creative potential of the person with no suggestions of possible solutions. Below, we will discuss how these thinking styles might be related with sleep.
What Does the Research Say About Creativity?
Sleep Loss May Influence Creativity Loss
The research on sleep and creativity dates back to the late 20th century. In 1988, researchers conducted a study comparing creative performance in 12 people who slept normally as compared to 12 people who were deprived of a night of sleep. The participants completed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking that required them to develop new ideas, including ways that someone could use a cardboard box and making different configurations of abstract shapes. They also completed anagrams, which involved rearranging letters into several words.
Not surprisingly, the people who were sleep deprived demonstrated lower creative skills on the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking that required divergent thinking. Interestingly, participants in the sleep deprived group also showed more perseveration in that they repeatedly made similar mistakes. Some participants who were sleep deprived would write responses and cross them out after realizing that they had already given the response. They had more difficulty generating new answers and remembering which answers they had already given. The researchers found no differences in the word-making task (i.e., anagrams) that involved convergent thinking.
Poorer Sleep Quality Is Linked With Poorer Creativity
More recent research has demonstrated that our sleep quality may also matter for creative performance. Researchers gave a group of 28 young undergraduate women wrist-worn monitors to measure their sleep quality for one week. The women also performed tasks that measured their creative performance, namely the remote associates test. To perform the remote associates test, participants must generate a new word that is related to a set a words, thus requiring divergent thinking (try it for yourself here). The women who had poorer sleep quality, particularly when their sleep was more fragmented, were less able to generate new words. Similarly, when their sleep durations varied from night-to-night (e.g., short sleep durations on weekdays and long sleep durations on weekends), they also performed more poorly on the creative task.
Together, these research studies suggest that both sleep loss and lower sleep quality interfere with our ability to engage in divergent thinking. Poor sleep health hinders our creativity and may make it more difficult to generate ideas, produce visual art, and write interesting prose. If you feel like you’re in a creativity rut, maybe check on your sleep health.
What is sleep health?, The Research Life.
Sleeping well is about more than how much time you spend asleep.
- Find an example of anagrams here.
- The responses to the online remote associates test must be in lowercase letters to be accepted.
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- This article is based on my opinion and does not serve as a proxy for medical advice. If you are consistently having trouble with your sleep, I recommend consulting a trusted medical professional.