Avatar dr m
Steven Y Park, MD  
Male, 55
New York, NY

Specialties: Sleep-breathing disorders

Interests: Running, Baking, origami
Private Practice
New York, NY
All Journal Entries Journals

How Lack of Sleep Can Make You More Creative

Dec 28, 2008 - 13 comments



Sleep Apnea


sleep deprivation


Richard Florida

It’s a known fact that sleep is essential for proper cognitive functioning, retention, concentration and mental acuity. Now, according to recent research, sleep may even enhance your creativity. According to an article in The New York Times which cites the study, those who slept more showed improved mental agility including the ability to make novel connections between disparate ideas by as much as 33%. As a result of findings like this, corporations that hinge on innovation such as Cisco Systems and Google have installed ergonomic sleep stations called EnergyPods in their corporate facilities.

But what about those people who sleep more than 9 to 10 hours and still feel exhausted and groggy? Why aren’t these sleep mongers waking up wide eyed and bushy tailed, bursting with creative energy? The answer to this seeming disparity depends on where these people lie on the sleep-breathing continuum.

Why Some Need More Sleep While Others Can Do Without

If you are one of those people who wake up refreshed and recharged after a good night’s rest, then your sleep quality is probably the kind that the researchers are pointing to when they say that sleeping more can make you more creative.  

However, there are many more people who sleep longer than the usual number of hours (like 9 to 10 hours) and still wake up feeling groggy and exhausted. For them it’s a major chore to get through their day, let alone have the energy to innovate and come up with new ideas. For those of you who find yourself in this situation, it’s probably not the amount of sleep but the kind of sleep you’re getting that’s impinging on your creativity. Here’s what I mean:

Sleep is composed of six stages: awake, stage 1, stage 2, stage 3, stage 4, and REM (rapid eye movement). Stage 1 and 2 are known as the "light" stages of sleep, REM as the "dreaming" stage and stages 3 and 4 as the "deep" or delta stages. We need a good distribution of all the sleep stages to get the proper restorative sleep we need to be creative.

As I point out in my book, Sleep, Interrupted,  many people who suffer from sleep breathing problems like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), or upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), are often unable to get past stage 1 and 2 let alone stay long enough in REM or stage 3 and 4 sleep stages to get the kind of quality sleep they need to feel truly rested. The reason why this happens is because their airway is constantly in danger of closing off or obstructing. These people’s airways are smaller than most, which is the result of various factors like having a floppy palate, larger than average tongue to jaw size ratio, or having chronic nasal congestion, just to name a few. (For more information, read my articles on OSA and UARS.)

These are usually the people who feel tired even though they may have slept more than 10 hours. For them, the reason why they’re feeling so unproductive is not because they need more sleep but because they lack the necessary amount of deep restorative sleep they need to feel refreshed and rejuvenated.

The one exception to this rule are those people who are often categorized as the creative class. For these type of people, sleep deprivation is not only a requisite component of their lifestyle but a vital by product of their creativity.  Many sculptors or painters will say that a 4 hour session can seem only like one hour. For them, a bout of inspiration can help them forgo all sorts of physical constraints, even sleep. In fact, more than one painter or sculptor have even told me that when they are unproductive, they intentionally sleep deprive themselves mildly to rev up their creativity.

So, you may be asking why is there such a wide discrepancy between those whom the sleep experts say need more sleep to be creative, and those who need less sleep to maintain their creativity? Again the answer to this mystery lies in how well you’re breathing at night while you sleep and how well your body can adjust to the constantly fluctuating sleep deficit.

Sleep Less, Get More Creative

Whenever I see patients who work in traditionally creative occupations, I find, more often than not, that many of them have narrowed upper airways, leading to easier collapse of either the throat or tongue structures while in deep sleep, leading to multiple arousals and inefficient sleep. Many of them also keep erratic sleep schedules, working without sleep one night, and sleeping in all day the next. Yet, many creatives will tell me that they thrive under these kinds of stress and pressure. They say that this is when their senses are most heightened and when they’re the most productive.

This is very similar to what happens when people undergo a mild to moderate form of sleep deprivation. What happens in these situations is that a low-grade physiologic stress response occurs. In fact, the lack of sleep can actually induce hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system therefore enhancing not only their sense of smell, hearing or intuition, but also heightening emotions and creativity. It’s not all that surprising then that many creative types tend to either consciously or subconsciously shift back and forth from getting too much sleep to no sleep at all to maintain their creative drive.

This may be also why those who tend to be creative are often attracted to work that’s not constrained by the typical  9-5 work schedule. According to Richard Florida, in his fascinating book Rise of the Creative Class, this is the reason why so many creative types congregate in metropolitan areas like New York (the city that never sleeps). He suggests that creatives work independent of traditional work conventions, and why innovations like telecommuting, mobile work stations, and global networking, have become so popular in this modern day economy. Florida further argues that this new "creative class" is any person or group of people that uses their intellect and creativity to enhance their work, which includes both the traditional creative types, like actors, writers, and musicians, and even the non-traditional creatives like doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, techies, architects, and interior designers. They are at their best when their time for work, rest and play is shaped by no other standard than their own. Not surprisingly, these creative types won’t or can’t adhere to the good old fashioned 7-8 hour sleep paradigm. This may be another reason why some people get more creative when they sleep, and some get less creative when they sleep too much.

The Final Word On Sleep

Of course, prolonged sleep deprivation for anyone can have detrimental effects on your health and physical well being. It’s imperative that if you have a sleep breathing problem to have it treated so that you are getting the requisite amount of deep sleep needed to maintain proper cognitive functioning.

Yet, if you consider the way that the human airway anatomy developed, you’ll see that we are the only mammals that are susceptible to the kind of sleep-breathing problems I describe. This makes me wonder if this isn’t the very reason why sleep makes us more productive and at the same time, be more creative than any other mammal alive. Just something to ponder the next time you have to pull an all-nighter.

Post a Comment
572651 tn?1530999357
by Lulu54, Dec 29, 2008
Dear Dr. Park,
Thanks for the insight into sleep deprivation and creativity.  I have a dear friend who goes in cycles of sleep deprivation to the point that she becomes manic in her creative output.  It is a very interesting phenomenon to observe from the outside.  I've never quite understood how she could go and go without the physcial collapse so many of us would experience.  

Have you written anything on sleep recovery? Perhaps that is the wrong term, but  I always wonder if it is possible to truly regain sleep that I have lost by sleeping longer later on.  When my manic friend does finally sleep, she will sleep an extreme number of hours, sometimes stretching into over a day. Is it possible to refuel the body and make up for that lost sleep?

Again your blog is very helpful.  Thanks.  Lulu

Avatar universal
by Steven Y Park, MDBlank, Dec 29, 2008

Your friend's example is an extreme case, but it does illustrate my point. Anyone who is significantly sleep deprived will naturally have a rebound sleep period, where they make up for lost sleep. But people with sleep-breathing problems feel sleep deprived, no matter how long they sleep, even if it's 9 to 10 hours.

Avatar universal
by crystal050203, Dec 30, 2008
I have several sleep disorders.  There is one I can never remember the name of though, but I do know what the disorder description definition is:  Upon falling asleep, I skip stages 1 & 2 and jump right into REM and skip 3 & 4 just before waking.  They triple checked my sleep study to make sure it was read correctly.  And it was not just and overnight one, it was about 18 hours long!  As I was being tested for sleep apnea and narcolepsy as well.  And I do have both, which I have heard is not to common to have both of those.  Both of which of course add up to EDS.  On top of that, I have hypoxemia, but only when I sleep (but I guess that is normal with sleep apnea).  Anyway, between the night sleep and the continuous awakening and sleeping for naps throughout the day, the longest it took me to fall asleep was like 4 minutes!  They made a big deal out of that.  There were a few times that I could have swore I never fell asleep, but I guess I did!  And even though I have sleep apnea (my c-pap needs to be set at like 11, had to come back for a second study for that), I don't snore loud enough for anyone to hear!  The microphone could barely pick it up!  But the narcolepsy onset hit me around age 14, I was 28 before they figured out what was wrong with me!!!  I kept telling the doctors something was wrong, but they were telling me it was all in my head or some people needed more sleep than others or I was just depressed, it was awful!!!  I was sleeping sometimes 2 days straight before waking up when they finally found all of this wrong with just one sleep study!  All I can say is Thank God I found a good Neurologist!!!

675347 tn?1365460645
by ginger899, Dec 30, 2008
I normally need 8-9 hours to function normally and without strain in the rational, normal world. I CAN do with less sleep, but rational function declines if I have less than 6-7 hours (ie I find it harder to concentrate/work/do physically-demanding jobs) YET.....on many occasions when I have no sleep at all, a very odd phenomenon happens. The 'right-brain' side of me (that is the creative non-rational side) seems to flourish! Ideas flow, poetic words are dreamed up easily, things I had never thought of (ie good ideas) seem to spring up out of nowhere!
For the sake of a healthy life I would prefer 8-9 hours sleep. But observing how changed I become after no sleep at all, I do wonder what this is all about! I wouldn't be surprised if brain-waves alter desperately trying to recoup their state when sleeping (non-beta) And we are kind of 'dreaming awake' (?)

152264 tn?1280354657
by Nancy T, Jan 19, 2009
Dr. Park wrote:
"... when people undergo a mild to moderate form of sleep deprivation. What happens in these situations is that a low-grade physiologic stress response occurs."

Just as I thought!! I've had daily, low-level unexplained dizzy-wooziness (like continual motion sensitivity or "carsickness in the head") with an "overlay" of concentration/attention problems for ten years, and from almost the beginning, by keeping a journal, I noticed VERY consistently that mild or moderate sleep deprivation caused that "fog" to lift and I would feel MUCH more clear-headed. I believe this "stress response" would explain why.

A neurologist had me try Provigil, and later I switched to Ritalin and finally in 2004 Strattera, a norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor. All of these drugs worked very well against the "fog," but Strattera is the BEST, because it's a side-effect-free and continuous relief from that "fog" that overlays my dizziness.

I presume that the enhanced activity of norepinephrine (which is involved in the stress response) from Strattera puts my brain into higher gear, like mild sleep deprivation does.

One thing, though... that "clear head" effect from mild/moderate sleep deprivation only came if I had had normal sleep (7-8 hours) for at least a couple of nights preceding the short sleep. Thus, I always felt best after sleeping about 5.5 hours following two 7.5 hour nights. After two or more 7.5-hour nights, I would feel very woozy and foggy and unable to concentrate. As far as I know, I don't have sleep apnea (my husband says I snore but don't wake up gasping).

Also, I noticed that my fogginess had a definite circadian component on those foggy, non-sleep-deprived days (at least until I started Strattera). I would wake up feeling OK around 7:30, then the woozy "fog" would hit hard about 8:30 or 9:00 a.m. and I would have a TERRIBLE time concentrating or doing any work. Around 11:30 or so I would feel noticeably better. Then at 1:30 pm, wham, the dizzy-woozy-fog was back, and it would make me feel so useless and sleepy I'd often have to go take a nap for an hour or so. I'd muddle through my afternoon, but then at 4:00 pm almost to the minute, the fog would lift like a veil, and I would feel the best I felt all day long. This would occur within the space of about a minute or two--all of a sudden, I felt fine. By 5:30 or so, the fog would start creeping back in. Finally, about 10:00 pm, I would feel clear-headed again, and that was a very productive time of day for me (I'm a freelance copyeditor), and I would often work til 1:00 a.m. trying to catch up on what I couldn't get done during the day. Even when I was on a napless 11:30-to-7:00 sleep schedule (pretty much my ideal), I still had this circadian variation with a burst of feeling great at 4:00 pm. I could never interest any doctor in this circadian variation, which I felt MUST be some clue to the unexplained dizziness/fog or at least a clue to its treatment, but they didn't seem interested in this. I have always wondered if these ups and downs coincided with some stress hormone that varies through the day and is highest at 4:00 pm?

Another weird thing that happened once--when I didn't sleep all night (finishing an editing project), by the following afternoon my dizziness was GONE--I could turn in a circle and not feel ANY dizziness, which hadn't occurred since my dizziness started many many years ago! Not just the fog was gone, but the dizziness was, too. That was REALLY strange. Something is weird with my brainstem... actually it is, I have highly abnormal auditory evoked potentials, maybe that accounts for something.

Thanks, Dr. Park, for that VERY interesting post! I used to read a lot about sleep and dizziness trying to figure out why I felt more clear-headed with less sleep, and this is the first time my suspicion has been confirmed!!

Nancy T.

1003413 tn?1250183345
by shreya_123, Aug 13, 2009

I really can't get to sleep. i am 16 yr old girl and i don't know if my age is stopping me from  going to sleep

all my friends can get to sleep, (16 and are girls),,,,,,,why can't i?

i want advice from you

thank you

Avatar universal
by Steven Y Park, MDBlank, Aug 13, 2009
There are a lot of reasons for you not being able to get to sleep. Some are behavioral (watching TV, exercising, eating just before bedtime, surfing the net, etc.) and some are medical (insomnia, anxiety, sleep-apnea). Teens have specific issues like staying up late or eating late. There are a number of good resources on good sleep hygiene that's widely available. If you're not having any luck, you may want to talk it over with your doctor. It's important to note that sleeping pills are not the answer.

Avatar universal
by kmil1999, Aug 13, 2009
  I am trying desperately to find out how to increase my stage 4 and REM sleep.  I never feel refreshed when I wake up, no matter the length of time I am asleep.  Pain and exhausation has ruined my life.  I believe not getting the restorative sleep is the root of the problem.  

  These are the results of my sleep studies:
5/12/04:  Stage Wake- 1.7%, Stage 1- 9.4%, stage 2- 35%, stage 3- 39.9%, Stage 4- 0, REM 15.6, 47 arousals, 26 hypopneas, NREM, 13 hypopneas, REM, 96% sleep efficiency.    

   4/4/06: 7.5% stage 1, 85.6% stage 2, 4.3% stage 3, 0% stage 4, 2.6% REM.  Sleep efficiency 92.3%, 84 arousals.  

  5/2/06: 19.5% stage I, 69.1% stage II, 11.4% stage III, 0% stage IV & REM,  Sleep efficiency 87.7%, 106 arousals.  

   3/3/08: 2.8% stage1, 81.4% stage 2, 15.8% stage 3, 0% stage 4 & REM, sleep efficiency 75%, 27 arousals, 14 PLMS

  3/19/09: 5.3% Wake, 2% stage 1, 61.5% stage 2, 35.3% stage 3, 0% stage 4, 1.1% REM, sleep efficiency 87.2%, 129 PLM.

I follow all the sleep hygiene ideas.  I have had a regular sleep schedule, although the hours are not "normal".  I have begun trying to adjust this slowly, but it has proven to be very difficult.  (I usually go to bed at 2:00am and up at 11:00am.)

What can I do to increase the two paticular stages of sleep that are so critcal, so I can heal?
Any help is greatly appreciated.

984138 tn?1359813073
by ErinZoe23, Aug 13, 2009
I recently noticed  I thought I always needed like 8 to 10hrs of sleep and felt horrible and sooo tired when i woke up.. thinking it would give more energy and be better for me....Bet recently I just started waking up after 5 6 or 7 hrs of sleep and had more energy and dint feel like  iwanted to go to sleep anymore...so I'm sticking with the 5 to 7 hr sleeping sessions  

Avatar universal
by Steven Y Park, MDBlank, Aug 13, 2009

One possible explanation is that the longer you sleep, the more likely you'll go into REM sleep, when you dream. This is also when your muscles are most relaxed and prone to obstruction and arousals. This is why when some people nap for longer than 30 minutes, they feel terrible.

Avatar universal
by jingle370, Feb 11, 2010
I feel abnormal when i have sleep, my head thinks and thinks and im also negative, but when i stay awake it all goes away, i feel normal, confident, awake, energetic, do you know why?

Avatar universal
by Marc422, Jul 30, 2010
Someone just shared a link to your article on Plaxo, and after you described fairly accurately my sleep pattern (sleep longer than most people, yet still not feeling rested) and the varying possible causes (I do have allergies and problems like deviated septums are genetic in my family), I decided to make an appointment and get checked out.  Thanks for all the info.

Avatar universal
by MooreaMalatt, Jan 20, 2011
Dr. Park!
I love this post and thank you for answering my burning question! I was hoping I wasn't having some sort of bipolar mania. My now 9month old daugher has Central Sleep Apnea (unresolved as to why or how to help her) and she wakes every hour or more her entire life. This has caused me extreme sleep deprivation and in this period of time I have written and published an album of children's songs, am writing a memoir about sleep deprivation, started grad school (Buddhist Psychology) and am patenting an invention. When I have been awake for many hours straight at around 9pm and not having slept any more than 1hr increments the previous night- that is when my creativitity is at its best. This was mind-boggling to me until now!  Do you know where I can find the best Pediatric sleep doctor in the country? We have had back luck in Seattle and I'd like to sleep some day (as much as the creativit is fun).

Post a Comment