Why sleep deprivation is (not) the key to creativity

Quite a few of the famous geniuses in history swore by sleep deprivation. Denying yourself sleep to stimulate creative thoughts certainly makes sense… and is completely unnecessary.

Why sleep deprivation helps you to be more creative… and why there’s a better way

Leonardo da Vinci, Nicola Tesla and Thomas Edison were not only incredibly creative… they must also have been pretty tired. Edison believed most people slept too much to be productive and claimed that he himself only slept four hours a day. Tesla was such a workaholic that he barely had time to sleep and he suffered several nervous breakdowns as a result of it. Da Vinci supposedly practised ‘polyphasic sleep’ and slept no more than two hours a day. While all these great minds hardly got any sleep, it did not cease their flow of brilliant ideas. In fact, it might well have been key to their inventions!

The brain’s filter
A fully rested brain is very good at keeping your thought process on track; it filters out distractions and ignores illogical thoughts. This is great when you have to focus on an analytical task, yet it is far from ideal when you have to come up with a creative solution. Blocking seemingly illogical thoughts, the brain’s filter effectively hinders creative thinking.

A tired brain, on the other hand, is freed from these limits on creativity. It is much less capable of filtering out illogical combinations and infeasible ideas. In other words: denying your brain sleep disables the inner critic.

You could compare the way a groggy brain functions with that of a person who is dreaming; the brain makes strange connections that an alert brain would never allow. It is therefore not surprising that many famous creative ideas found their origin in a curious dream.

Thomas Edison found a clever way to utilise this insight. Edison used his naps to tackle problems he faced in his work. He would sit in a chair and place two metal pans on the floor beside him. In both hands, over the plate, he would hold a metal ball. The moment he began to doze off, the ball would slip from his fingers and land noisily on the plate. Thus waking him up and enabling him to capture the vivid images from this sleep. Unusual images, unfiltered by the pre-frontal cortex and likely to spark creative insights.

The bad news
So, less sleep makes you more creative. I’m sure many overworked (and sleep deprived) managers will be very happy with this conclusion. But they shouldn’t rejoice too quickly. While a sleep deprived brain might be good at creative thinking, it certainly is no good for analytical thought. Assuming you need both in your work, sleeping less is not as great a solution as it seemed.

The good news
While denying your poor brain its much-deserved sleep is not an option, there is a perfectly good alternative to it.

First off: make a conscious effort to shut down the early critic. Judging ideas and evaluating their feasibility is absolutely necessary… but wait with it until AFTER the ideation phase. Suspend your judgement and generate as many ideas as you can. THEN –and only then– evaluate the results.

Secondly, use thinking techniques to force your brain on a side track. Don’t settle for obvious, ‘logical’ ideas. Force your brain to make unusual connections. Use provocations to look for ideas in unexpected (original) directions. Exaggerate, fantasise about completely unrealistic scenarios and make seemingly absurd combinations.

There are many thinking techniques to break free from your sensible, yet insufficient, thinking patterns. In the article ‘What thinking techniques are best for your challenge?’ you’ll find some techniques to get you started. Whether you need to solve a tricky problem, are looking for a new business opportunity or simply want to improve an existing product or service.

If all you have to do all day is generating original ideas, denying yourself sleep will actually help (although it’s probably not a viable long-term strategy). However, if you also want to excel in analytical and logical thinking, you’ll have to find a better approach. Luckily there is: deliberately ignore the inner critic. Postpone judgement and don’t let common sense hold you back. Instead, use thinking techniques to purposefully look for answers in unusual directions and force your brain out of its comfort zone.


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Showing 5 comments
  • Chris

    Great article

    • René de Ruijter

      Thank you, Chris. Glad you like it!

  • Marc

    Very nice post I find I am more creative with little sleep, thanks for writing this!

    • René de Ruijter

      Thank you Marc! And apologies for my late reaction. I hadn’t noticed your comment before. Luckily, now you know that tiredness is not the only way 😉

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