Sleep, dreams and creative inspiration
What’s this episode about?
Welcome to the third episode of the third season of The Pen Garden Podcast. Listen to the full episode and/or scan the show notes below for the main takeaways.
Today, I’m going to talk about sleep, dreams and how we can prime our subconscious to generate new ideas and problem-solve for us.
Sleep & creativity
Sleep is essential for maintaining creative output. This is something that most people intuitively know, because sleep is essential for life as a whole. It’s also still a bit of a mystery to science, but from what we have gleamed collectively, we know that sleep isn’t just us shutting off like a computer for the night. Far from inactive, our bodies are busy consolidating memories, dreaming and repairing physical damage.
In his book ‘Rest’, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang explains that “as we sleep, the brain shuffles around the day’s memories, moving some from short-term to long-term memory. Visual tasks, emotionally laden experiences, and procedural memories (for example, hard-to-describe skills like riding a bike) tend to be consolidated during REM sleep, while declarative memories (things like lists of words) are consolidated during slow-wave sleep.”
The knowledge of this is important because coupled with the fact that sleep is how the body repairs itself, getting enough sleep consistently is essential for your mental health and creativity. You have to go through a few cycles at night to have a rejuvenating sleep.
The effects of sleep deprivation
There is a somewhat romantic view of the lone writer writing their magnum opus in a cozy candlelit room, with no one around but them and their muse. But as I’ve said in a previous episode, nighttime work presents unique challenges, one of which is the very real possibility that you won’t get enough sleep if you have other commitments in the morning or if you’re a light sleeper.
To further confirm the link between creativity and sleep, we don’t have to look further than what sleep deprivation does to our bodies and minds. Scientists “measured the effects of shift work on the performance and cognitive ability of doctors and nurses. A 2008 study of anesthesiology interns and anesthetists in New Zealand found that after a couple of weeks of having night shifts or on-call duties layered atop of regular duties, their performance on psychomotor vigilance tests dropped.
Not only that, a sleep deficit of less than an hour a night led to declines greater than those seen in comparable groups tested in a sleep lab. This suggests that laboratory studies might be underestimating the impact of sleep loss and that in the real world, the added stresses of making decisions, picking up kids, and trying to lead a normal life amplify the effects of sleep loss. Likewise, studies of night nurses in Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, United States all found that as their sleep quality declined, stress levels went up and cognitive performance dropped.”
I’m making this point because creativity is part of our cognitive performance and I have never once been creative after a night or two of bad sleep. It’s just impossible because our bodies and minds shift priorities, and suddenly things like work, art and fun aren’t making the top of the list.
My next two points are a lot more positive, I wanted to touch on the importance of sleep because the pandemic has destroyed plenty of sleep patterns and if you can work on getting a good sleep routine, it will definitely boost your writing routine too. If not, don’t fret too much about it, times are hard right now so let’s be kind to ourselves.
On the note of self-compassion, have you listened to the bonus episode for this season? There I talk about mental health and NaNoWriMo, though much of it can be applied to any consistent, fast drafting writing strategy you might have. So if you haven’t heard it, go check it out, it touches on 9 mental health traps writers can find themselves into while on a writing deadline, and how to avoid them.
Dreams as gateways to novel ideas & problem-solving
One thing that I’ve always liked about myself is my ability to dream up wacky things. After dreaming, I sift through the weird images and ideas of the night before and pick out anything that might be interesting to write about or might fit in story I’ve been working on. It’s like a free boost of inspiration. Science agrees with me. “Dreams are just thinking in a different biochemical state,” says Harvard University psychologist Deirdre Barrett, author of The Committee of Sleep. “In the sleep state, the brain thinks much more visually and intuitively.”
But how do you foster that? How do you make sure you remember your dreams and don’t miss out on this free mental resource? One practice many people have, both creative people and people who are working through any issues in their life, is keeping a dream journal. It’s particularly useful if you have very vivid, disturbing dreams which can haunt you for days on end. Wake up, put it down on the page, forget it so you can continue with your life. Then you can always return to your journal to process the experience and look for any good idea nuggets.
If you want to have a good sleep and dream, avoiding alcohol and caffeine is also wise, because they scramble your sleep cycles, leading to lower quality of sleep.
“Barrett’s studies suggest that engaging in some type of pre-bedtime priming—like contemplating a problem you’d like to solve—increases the likelihood that sleep will bring some answers. Up to a third of the subjects in one of her sample groups reported that priming had helped them find a solution that had eluded them during the day.”
Pre-bedtime priming & self-hypnosis
Hypnotherapist and children’s author Steve Bowkett also believes in the idea of pre-bedtime priming, although he refers to it as self-hypnosis. Here’s what he says: “The subconscious is a treasure house of potential ideas, based as it is on the accumulated experiences of a lifetime. It is the ground of those two astonishing resources – memory and imagination.”
According to Bowkett, you can teach yourself to control your light bulb moments of inspiration and problem-solving, which is essentially when you get a little notification from your unconscious mind, a little snippet of connection. He suggests that you ask yourself a question and set a specific date and time for your mind to give you the answer.
This is different from brainstorming, as you’re not actively thinking about the issue at hand, you’re giving your subconscious mind space and time to make the necessary links and get back to you. This is not only something to do around bedtime but it might be the easiest way to introduce the practice to your mind. When you sleep, after all, you’re giving your subconscious free reign. This might seem like some sort of magic but it isn’t, it’s building a habit of thinking in a specific way.
Results might come easy or hard, and that’s because it all depends on how you think about it. If you put a mental block on it thinking it’s all sorcery nonsense, you’re unlikely to succeed because you’re not sending the right signals to your subconscious. So next time you’re stuck in a story or out of ideas, try setting some dates with your subconscious and see how it goes.
sO, TO SUMMARIZE…
Respect your body and mind and try to get consistent good sleep, thus making sure you put your mind in the best position to dream, problem-solve and generate new ideas.
Come join me next Tuesday, 10th of November, to learn how brainstorming can jumpstart your inspiration and how writing exercises can get you out of a slump and into a new dawn of creativity. It’s going to be a more practical episode and I’m really excited for it.
If you want to be up to date on Pen Garden news, subscribe to the show and sign up to my newsletter. I promise no spam, only cups of writing joy.
If you want to continue the conversation, you can poke me on The Pen Garden Facebook page or tweet me @laineydelaroque. Thanks very much for listening everyone. Hope you have an awesome week and speak to you soon.
- Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang (book)
- How to Wake Up to Your Creativity (website article)
- The Committee of Sleep by Deidre Barrett (book)
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