The Beautiful Brain

From Sandro Botticelli to Henri Rousseau, both contemporary, renaissance, and older renowned artists all share a similar fascination with sleep. A look at paintings from all through the ages will quickly acquaint you with various depictions of the mysterious state of rest.

However, considering how puzzling the concept of sleep is, the artist’s preoccupation with it is not unfounded.

Halfway between death and consciousness, we enter this peculiar phase, sometimes with soothing or bizarre imagery, that we must go to function correctly.

It complex mechanics aside, focusing on the state of sleep alone brings up multiple questions. For one, we don’t completely understand what the state is. Then there’s a whole other question of dreaming.

Dreaming is another concept where we have multiple theories but no definite answers. Our dreams change throughout our lives. We begin dreaming even before we are born, where according to The Nocturnal Brain, we spend about a third of each day sleeping.

Scientists are still puzzled by many aspects of our sleep states and our artists have echoed the sentiment.

Over the years, artists have captured the mystery of these states as well as highlighted the varying human conditions that they create or represent.

Art and Sleep

In the book the Atlas of Clinical Sleep Medicine, the authors Meir Kryger, Colin M. Shapiro, and Deena Sherman dedicate an entire chapter to the art history’s extensive relationship with sleep.

Even though it seems boring at first glance, artists have never run short of depictions of the state of sleep. In the book, Kryger, a sleep expert and professor at Yale School of Medicine, explains that the themes that are entwined with the state makes it an entrancing subject for the artists.

He states that they “have an intense fascination with mythology, dreams, religious themes, the parallel between sleep and death, reward, abandonment of conscious control, healing, a depiction of innocence and serenity, and the erotic.”

In the chapter aptly titled “Sleep in Art and Literature,”  the authors explore the many ways that artists have represented the ever-mysterious state we call sleep.

The chapter starts by spotlighting Botticelli’s 15th century “Mars and Venus” as a classic example. In this artwork, the artist portrays Venus, the goddess of love, sitting beside Mars, the god of war as he sleeps. Meanwhile, baby satyrs toy with Mars’ body and his weapon, showing the vulnerability that comes with this state.

art and sleepSource

Vincent van Gogh’s “Noon: Rest from Work,” on the other hand, shows the same condition in another frame as the sweet state of contentment and relaxation after a long day’s work.

sleep art


Whether for showing power, eroticism, serenity, innocence, or darker, hair-raising themes, there is no shortage of subjects which classical artists allude to sleep. Whether a new age surrealist or a renowned renaissance painter, few could resist the unexpected allure of the topic of sleep.

However, as Kryger explains, this lure is not unfounded. He writes: “Sleep is a necessity and every person does it, but the actual experience cannot be shared, when one goes to sleep, one falls alone, and when one enters dreamland, one walks by one’s self. Here lies the appeal for artists.”

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Creativity and Poor Sleep

Creativity and sleep are two seemingly unrelated subjects that are often brought together much folklore and fantastic sounding anecdotes.

Creative bouts alluded to sleep disturbances include anecdotal stories like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dream at Lord Byron’s villa and German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé’s vision that ideated the ring structure of benzene.

Other, more recent examples include Jack Nicklaus dream that helped him correct his golf swing and Paul McCartney discovery of the tune for the song “Yesterday” in a dream.

May artists attribute at least some of their creative geniuses to sleep disturbances, insomnia, and dreams, but does this have any foothold in reality?

Researchers have carried out multiple studies and test to help evaluate the creativity of subjects and its link if any with REM sleep and insomnia. Most of these studies focus on their ability to solve complex problems with creative solutions and form abstract connections.

One study concluded that different creative types experienced one of two broad sleep patterns. Verbal creatives reported sleepiness occurring later in the night, longer overall sleep time, and then wake up times. Visual creatives, on the other hand, said more disturbed sleep and an increased hampering of their daytime functioning.

To access visual creativity, participants of the study received a sheet of 40 circles spent 10 minutes drawing whatever came to mind. To measure verbal creativity, the students performed the “unusual uses” test, writing down as many uses they could think up for a tin can in 10 minutes.

In a 2013 study, researchers found some positive correlation between nighttime insomnia and more divergent thinking and creative behavior. This study seems to support the claims by many artists that they are at their most innovative during bouts of insomnia. Another study that appeared to support this examined children found that the most creative subjects exhibited increased sleep disruption.

However, there is no clear cut evidence that insomniacs are inherently more creative than the general population. Also, there is no definite proof that insomnia and creativity are causally linked, and which one causes the other.

Another possible explanation for the correlation is the possibility of sparks of creativity from the more unplanned free time that an insomniac has to fill. Furthermore, the mental unrest that results from sleep disturbances might be just the kind of chaos that facilitates creativity and art.

However, extended deprivation from sleep generally leads to a degradation of brain function, so a rapid decline in creativity from further sleep deprivation is bound to happen.

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REM Sleep and Creativity

In one Harvard Medical School study, researchers reported a 30% boost in subjects’ ability to solve anagram word puzzles after waking up from REM sleep compared to non-REM sleep.

REM Sleep and CreativitySource

The researchers expected this result as it is typical for people to report being at their creative best immediately after waking up. For most people, their longest stage of REM sleep occurs just before waking up in the morning.

In another study, researchers at the University of California used a protocol called a Remote Associates Test (RAT) to quantify increases in creativity and found a positive correlation between REM and creativity. In a similar endeavor, UC San Diego scientists recorded a 40% improved on a creativity test by participants after REM sleep.

Based on several studies, REM sleep seems to spark new solutions to creative problems compared with other forms of sleep or rest, lending credence to the famous saying to “sleep on it.”

REM stands for rapid eye movement, a type of sleep where your eyes move quickly in multiple directions under your eyelids. During sleep, we alternate between REM sleep and the more shallow non-REM sleep. Dreams and sleep disruptions typically happen in the REM phases.

Sleep begins with a session of non-REM sleep that gives way to a period of REM sleep, then the cycle repeats with progressively longer sessions. The first period of REM typically lasts around 10 minutes while the final one may last up to an hour.

During REM sleep, your brain waves mimic the activity it experienced during your waking hours. Consequently, your heart rate and breathing quicken, your eyes switch position rapidly, and there is the possibility of more intense dreams.

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Dreams, REM Sleep, and Creativity

In a new theory of sleep compiled by Penny Lewis and co. from Cardiff University, the trio delved into REM sleep, its role in dream formation, and how it might help in fostering creativity.

Unlike non-REM sleep, in REM sleep, the neurons firing in our brains abandon their synchronous melody for a more scattered din. Throughout REM, random parts of the neocortex are activated without order while acetylcholine floods the brain.

Acetylcholine disrupts the connection between the hippocampus and neocortex. This disruption creates a state of flux where new connections between neurons form more quickly, are strengthened, or weakened.

In simpler terms, your neocortex is a lot more flexible during REM sleep. In the research, Lewis suggests that this state of flux allows your subconscious to create more links between seemingly unrelated concepts. This flux might also account for the more vivid dreams of the REM phase.

She explains that, In REM sleep, “the neocortex will replay abstracted, simplified elements [of that problem], but also other things that are randomly activated. It’ll then strengthen the commonalities between those things. When you wake up the next day, that slight strengthening might allow you to see what you were working on in a slightly different way. That might allow you to crack the problem.”

During sleep, our brain goes through one cycle of non-REM and REM sleep approximately every 90 minutes. Hence, waking up at the end of any of these cycles could result in a “vision” of information relaying new connections.

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Sleep Hacks for Improved Creativity

Experiment with Your Creative Time Scheduling

Switching around the time you allot for creativity can bring new significant changes.

Also, you can try making time for creative thought just before you sleep. Our brains tend to get more creative when you are tired as your thoughts then to wander more, and you get distracted way easier.

Creative thought just before bed also creates more fodder for your subconscious to work with.

If you are a night owl, you could try jolting the creative process in the morning, while morning larks can have a go at it in the evening. For added effect, you could try waking up earlier than usual and test your creative abilities.

When in Doubt, Sleep on It

“Sleep on it” now has considerable scientific backing. Several studies show the efficacy of the brain at finding solutions even when it is not actively working on a problem. During sleep and other distracting activity, our minds are more likely to make connections between seemingly unrelated ideas.

Your brain goes on a mental wandering spree that takes it through many seemingly unproductive paths that can sometimes lead to the peculiar insight that fixes a current problem.

Hence, harnessing the power of your subconscious sleeping mind can help you surmount your toughest creative blocks. A 1993 Havard study reported that when participants asked themselves a question before bed, 50% dreamt about the problem, and a quarter found a solution in their dreams.

If you are working on a particularly tricky problem that requires thinking outside the box, allowing yourself a few nights of sleep can significantly increase your chances of figuring out a creative solution.

Keep Track of Your Dreams

Recording your dreams using a notebook or a smartphone app can significantly increase your chances of abstracting useful information from the subconscious.

Both adults and babies alike dream for about hours per night, yet as much as 95% of these dreams are quickly forgotten shortly after waking.

Read Something Inspiring Before Going to Bed

Also, you can jog your mind just before slumber by reading something creative. You can take up a work of fiction or nonfiction to prime your brain for fresh creative thinking as soon as you wake up.

Allow yourself to daydream

Daydreaming during the day can play a similar scrambling and unscrambling role to sleep. Like with dreams, it is quite common for artists to speak of creative inspiration coming in a vision or daydream.

Allowing your mind daydream, especially when you are tired or distracted can sometimes bolster spurts of creativity.

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Tips to Getting Better Sleep

Invest in a Good Mattress

Proper sleep and by extension, healthy life begins with a solid mattress. A mattress is one of the most used pieces of upholstery in your home. Throughout an 80-year life, you will spend an average of 24 years on this piece of foam, so it better be a good one.

Good mattresses do not have to be expensive. You should opt for those with a return policy and try out a few before settling on the right one. A good mattress plus clean sheets is the principal ingredient of good sleep.

Set a Sleep Schedule

Our bodies evolved to sleep at a fixed schedule. Hence, varying your sleep schedule from each night is a surefire way to reduce the quality of your sleep.

Ideally, you should go to bed at the same time every night and rise at roughly the same time every morning. Once up, you should avoid hitting the snooze button. Rather than giving you extra sleep, going into snooze starts a new sleep cycle that leaves you feeling groggier when it is interrupted.

Typically, your sleep schedule should align with the earth’s natural daily cycle. An excellent way to figure out your natural sleep cycle is to go camping. Sleep researchers at the University of Colorado discovered that spending time in the outdoors help reset our body clock.

Set the Mood

A great way to get ready for excellent sleep is to modify your environment to make it more conducive.

First, remove or dim all blue light. Bright light, especially blue, interferes with your body’s natural melatonin production which helps you get sleepy. Hence, to allow you get sleepy easier, reduce exposure to all forms of bright light late in the evenings. You should also use blue light filters like f.lux and Twilight on your digital devices for further protection. For best results, your sleeping room should stay pitch black.

Second, have a consistent bedtime routine to cue your mind and body to start getting sleepy. Turn off your devices, take a warm shower, read a book, or journal, the choice is yours. Just keep it consistent. Over time, you sleepiness level will begin to adjust on cue.

Also, you could consider taking a melatonin and/or ZMA supplement about 30 minutes before bedtime to further aid you in getting to sleep fast.

Avoid Inflammation and Stimulants

Avoid stimulants like coffee or the lure of nightcap anytime near your bedtime. These stimulants can significantly disrupt your sleep cycles and allow less time for the restorative stage 3 and 4 sleep that helps you wake up fully rested.

Wake Up Strong

Like the nighttime counterpart to sleepiness, setting up a morning routine can significantly improve wakefulness and get your day started on a strong note. A good rule of thumb is to create a schedule that incorporates some bright lights and exercise.

Bright light, especially blue light, sends a signal to our brain to raise cortisol levels and stop releasing melatonin to help wake us up. Exposure to bright light first thing in the morning helps to get you started at peak function.

Also, make sure to incorporate exercise into your morning and daily routine. Rigorous training will also use up a significant portion of your energy stores during the day, which is guaranteed to make you more sleepy at night.

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