The Artist Life

Creative Insomnia

Creative Insomnia



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“If the insomnia of a musician allows him to create beautiful pieces, it is a beautiful insomnia.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Common experience informs most of us that sleep is essential for insightful and creative thinking during waking hours. A study conducted at the University of California – San Diego, illustrates that the four or five periods of REM sleep we experience at night (which typically total about 90 to 120 minutes), enhance our creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.

Moonlight by Ilya Repin, 1896.

The study, conducted by Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, shows that REM sleep appears to help achieve creative solutions by stimulating associative networks, “allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.”

The study used a creativity test in which participants were shown multiple groups of three words and asked to find a fourth word that could be associated to all three words. They were tested in the morning and again in the afternoon, either after a nap with REM sleep, a nap without REM sleep, or simply a quiet period of rest. Those who napped without experiencing REM sleep along with those who rested quietly, experienced no improvement on the test. “Strikingly, however, the REM sleep group improved by almost 40 percent over their morning performances.”

On the other side of the coin, and the planet, a study in New Zealand of children ages ten to twelve showed that those participants who had high scores on creativity tests were more than twice as likely to have sleep disturbances than those who had average scores on creativity tests. The study suggested that creative abilities may adversely affect one’s sleep patterns.

It would seem that, depending on which research you favor, insomnia is either a hindrance to creativity, or a boost! From personal experience, we know that a vibrant imagination can keep a brain awake through the wee hours and that a fear of sleeplessness can amplify one’s inability to fall asleep! Some artists have argued that their insomnia is essential to their creative output. Unstructured time late at night provides them with extra hours free of distractions to create. Picasso was famous for his all night creative sessions and sleeping during the day.

We’ve found that one avenue for the creative insomniac is to take advantage of all the possibilities that painting at night can bring. And for that purpose, we’ve created “Nocturnes – A Primer on Night Painting,” available to download or in softcover at The Artist’s Road Store.

–John and Ann


Watch the video: Creative Insomnia 2006 (August 2022).