Jump in the way-back machine for a moment here, and set it for 1959. In January of that year, a disc jockey named Peter Tripp accepted a challenge to stay awake for more than 200 hours.
After the first few days of the publicity stunt, Tripp’s unrested mind started to play tricks on him. He saw his shoes covered with spiderwebs. He claimed rabbits and kittens and mice were running around on the floor. He accused a colleague of dropping a hot electrode into his shoe and believed a visitor was outfitted in a suit made of worms. Before dropping onto a pillow after 201 hours awake—that’s more than eight days—he told psychiatrists he was not really Peter Tripp at all, but an imposter.
Our brains need sleep to organize a day’s input and process what’s been learned. You may not see worm suits after an all-nighter, or even two, but the documented effects of ongoing sleep deprivation do include anxiety, depression and a breakdown of the brain’s executive functioning; that is, our ability to make sound judgments and act on them appropriately.
Yet, artistically inclined people often seem to thrive in the wee small hours. With the rest of the world quiet and cloaked, creatives come alive. It’s as if the ghosts and goblins of night are muses to many of the world’s painters, writers and musicians.
Hit the haywire
Tripp’s experience is evidence of a brain gone haywire, and his stunt led to a good deal of speculation among behavioral scientists. One theory was that he had flummoxed the brain’s prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain involved in executive function and in establishing a sense of self. (A recent study reported the prefrontal region also plays a role when jazz musicians improvise.) Another hypothesis was that Tripp’s mind ran through the REM cycles it would have completed during sleep, and tossed up dream imagery while he was awake.
Even without “Trippy” hallucinations, creative types may sense they’re able to dip into the well of dream power while straddling the line between full awareness and sleep.
One theory of “creative insomnia” is that it’s a mild form of altering one’s consciousness. Sleeplessness leads to a bleary but opportune time when the binds of reality start to loosen.
Another theory of creative insomnia is based on the idea that artistic people are driven by an overactive mind. They routinely “borrow” time against sleep, sacrificing the satisfaction of rest for artistic fulfillment.
Creativity and insomnia
Does lack of sleep put humans in a state that makes creativity more likely or is the creative mind especially susceptible to insomnia?
In their 2006 study Could Creativity Be Associated with Insomnia?, Drs. Dione Healey and Mark A. Runco found that a group of highly creative children was significantly more likely to experience sleep disturbances than a noncreative group.
The authors noted it was important to understand the correlation since both creativity and sleep deprivation have been linked to a number of pathologies—namely, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
The problem-solving slumber
So if you’re looking to unleash creativity, will lack of sleep provide the inspiration you need?
The prevailing wisdom is typified by a 2004 study which demonstrated that sleep actually helps people arrive at creative solutions.
Students were given a complicated memory task involving a string of eight numbers. Those who “slept on it” were more likely to solve the problem when they awoke than those who stayed up all night binge-thinking.
Certainly, plenty of disciplined creatives are most productive when well rested. Yet many remain drawn to that long stretch of night that promises to fill their mind with color, sound and light.
“Imagination rules the night,” says Mark Inglis, an artist based in Brooklyn, NY. “It’s my magic time to let the little animal out.”
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