I have a few friends who are songwriters. They spend hours in their homes, studios, coffee shops and anywhere they can find inspiration, picking away at their guitars and pouring their souls into notebooks, trying to find that one melody or lyric that will allow them to burst onto the music scene like their music idols. Like many artists in pursuit of creative excellence, they make many sacrifices—working odd jobs they hate, ignoring medical issues for lack of health insurance and resources, foregoing sleep in order to devote as much time as possible to their passion. But instead of sacrificing sleep and attempting to fuel their creative juices with caffeine and a throbbing toothache just to stay awake, maybe they should take a lesson from history and just sleep on it.
In 1965, Keith Richards, guitarist for The Rolling Stones, groggily awoke in his motel room to find his tape recorder on the bedside table at the end of its tape. Not remembering using it at all the night before, he played back the tape and heard himself playing the now famous opening lick of the song “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” followed by 45 minutes of himself snoring. Evidently, the song had come to him in his sleep and he woke up, recorded it, and fell back to sleep with no memory of it ever happening. The Stones recorded the song and it soon became a hit, sparking the band’s invasion into the United States, and cementing The Rolling Stones in history (1). The song has even been ranked the “Second Greatest Song of All Time” by Rolling Stone Magazine. Now, this could be seen as a one off experience—a lucky break by Richards—but studies in the social sciences have consistently proven that sleep actually enhances our creativity and our ability to come up with unique connections and insights.
“Sleeping is the height of genius” – Soren Kierkegaard
In a study conducted at the University of Lubeck in Germany, respondents were given a mathematical puzzle to solve that contained a number of rules to which they must adhere. They were not told, however, that there was a shortcut that, when discovered, made the puzzle easily solvable. Half of the respondents were given the puzzle and told to get a good night’s sleep before attempting to answer. The other half were given the puzzle in the morning and asked to solve it that day. In the end, respondents who were given the opportunity to sleep on it were twice as likely to uncover the shortcut and answer the problem correctly and easily (2).
What this and countless other experiments have shown is that when we sleep, our brains continue to function and enable us to make connections that we might not have been able to make while awake. In his book, Imagine, (I know, I know…second blog in a row I have referenced this book…blogging foul) Jonah Lehrer explains that, while we are awake, our prefrontal cortex—where problem solving takes place—has a tendency to hold back creativity because it is focused on a small area of thoughts and experiences related to the question at hand. However, when we fall asleep the prefrontal cortex shuts itself down, allowing the brain to make new connections without censorship, often resulting in new, different ideas. Sleep enables the brain to find connections in ideas and memories that are seemingly unrelated, and increases the probability that creative ideas and solutions will emerge to solve the problems and thoughts floating around in our heads. (Imagine, pp 106-108)
Sleep Inspires Insights
When searching for insights and answers, it might feel like we have to stare a problem down and beat it into submission so we can discover the best solution. But what the neurosciences—and Keith Richards—have shown us is oftentimes the best solution is to step away from the problem and sleep on it in order to allow the brain to integrate it into our memory system and work on making sense of it for us. By taking the concentrated focus off of the problem, the nonconscious brain can make different associations and help bring to light creative solutions.
So next time you are struggling with an issue—be it nailing down a tagline or writing a monumental bridge—instead of spending the late hours focusing intently on it, close your eyes, catch some sleep, and let your brain do the work for you. What you wake up to on your bedside table might surprise you.
1. “Satisfaction Comes to Keith Richards” 2012. The History Channel website. Jul 27 2012, http://www.history.com/.
2. Graham, Sarah. “Experiment Shows You Really Should Sleep On It” 2004. Scientific American. July 27 2012, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=experiment-shows-you-real