How sleep can act like a dishwasher for your creative brain

Even though most of us fail to make good use of this invaluable part of our lives

Sarah Healy
Dec 2, 2019 · 6 min read
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What sleep can do for your brain is pretty amazing (Illustration by Sarah Healy)

François Leroy aka the Friendly Robot lists the ability to rest as one of his seven rules of creativity in his Collective Podcast interview with Ash Thorpe.

He is not alone.

In her book Thrive, Adriann Huffington quotes Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic when he says,

Sleep is the most underrated health habit

In today's society, particularly in the creative field to rest can be viewed as laziness or unambitious. The ability to function on little sleep seems to be an unwritten expectation of many job descriptions. Or whatever you have to do to get the job done.

Even outside of the creative sphere pushing hard continuously seems like a common goal. How little sleep you need, has become symptomatic of our prowess. We have even started to make a fetish of not getting enough sleep.

This is a problem.

Especially as a creative, spending a lot of time on a computer without getting enough sleep or rest is not sustainable. Finding ways to feel rejuvenated, renewed and well-rested should be just as important as creating at a high level.

So what are good ways to recover? When it comes to running taking time to stretch and foam rolling is just as important as putting in the miles.

Cultivating how we spend our time when not creating can also impact on our creative work.

For example, Ash Thorpe has found that spending time alone in nature allows him to press the hard reset button. Given his extraordinary ability to consistently create such high-quality output it appears to be highly effective.

Although he builds time into his schedule to recover, he himself openly admits that he often doesn't sleep enough. He has often done a podcast interview or is up working on a project after as little as four hours of sleep.

To create at a high level, sacrifice is inevitable. Sleep seems to be the one thing that often gets eliminated, reduced or ranks lowest on the priority list.

Is this just the way it has to be?

Or is there a way to squeeze in the benefits of sleep even if we cannot get the recommended seven or eight hours a night?

First, why is sleep so important for the creative brain?

1. It can enhance creativity

This is a pretty big one.

Our ingenuity. confidence, leadership, decision making, and creativity can be enhanced by getting enough sleep.

According to Drs. Stuart Quan and Russell Sana from Havard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine

Sleep deprivation negatively impacts our mood, our ability to focus, and our ability to access higher-level cognitive functions: the combination of these factors is what we generally refer to as mental performance.

As creatives we often combine elements that previously not been mixed together, there this access to higher-level cognitive functions is welcome in the complex creative process.

2. It can enhance the quality of what you are producing

As Adrianna Huffington also wisely points out in her book Thrive,

We often mistakenly think that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in.

If we are tired or have not got enough sleep we may still be putting in the hours. But is important to take a step back and ask ourselves what the hours we are putting in look like?

Are we unfocused, making bad decisions and not getting a whole lot done?

Ok, you may have spent ten hours sitting at the computer, but what did you actually achieve during that time?

When I first heard of 90-minute sprints, I was cynical. Sometimes things took a long time and I did not like the idea of setting alarms and creating another level of stress into my life.

Then I tried them. It is scary of effective they are and how much knowing that you have a limited time to get things done in sharpens mental function.

Of course, these sprints are further amplified if we are well-rested.

Even Bill Clinton who used to famously get only five hours of sleep a night openly admitted

‘Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired’

When preparing for my first ultramarathon, I spent a lot of time running the lonely red dirt roads of Queensland, Australia. Yet I spend the same amount of time soaking in hot baths, foam rolling and stretching.

Without an equal dedication to both training or recover I am pretty sure my body would not have held up and have been much more susceptible to injury.

Yet in our daily life, we aim to continuously push without the same dedication to utilizing the best natural recover we have — sleep or using it way too little.

3. Sleep can act as a dishwasher for your creative brain

Ok I may have to further explain this one.

A study undertaken on mice in 2013 revealed that during sleep our brains carry out a very important process — clearing out harmful waste proteins that build-up between its cells.

A process that may reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s.

This prompted one of the study’s authors. Maiken Nedergaad, a professor of neurosurgery at the University of Rochester to say

It’s like a dishwasher

In addition to likening it to a dishwasher Professor Nedergaad also made an analogy to a house party

You can either entertain the guests or clean u the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.

This analogy perfectly summarizes the limited energy our brain has at its disposal.

Even though we may treat it as a renewable resource, it only has two different functioning states to choose from
i) awake and aware
ii) asleep and cleaning

We might love to entertain, but the clean up remains to be done. Something that will pile up unless we address it.

If we cannot sleep as long as we wish, what can we do?

What if seven to eight hours a night are not possible?

This is where the art of napping comes in.

Throughout history, prolific nappers include Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and john f. Kennedy.

Personally I am not a very good napper.

When I nap, I can’t seem to sleep for just 20 minutes. My naps turn into what I like to describe as a Homer- Simpson-like-coma. Yes, drool and all. These mini comas tend to last at least two hours, so not really naps.

But I am trying to become a more efficient and like to listen to music or meditations while also setting a gentle alarm to rouse me before I fall into a deeper state.

According to David Randall, author of Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, a short nap

‘primes our brains to function at a higher level, letting us come up with better ideas, find solutions to puzzles more quickly, identify patterns faster and recall information more accurately’

Even though long hours and sleeping little have become synonymous with staying ahead in many professions by sleeping more we become more competent and in control of our lives.

When was the last time you work up unprompted by an alarm, feeling refreshed and like you had enough sleep?

If you cannot remember then perhaps your bedtime routine should move up the priority list.

Your creativity and productivity will thank you.

Sarah Healy is a designer, writer and adventuress, focused on motion design and visual storytelling. She authors content over on Design Digest and Happy Human.

Follow her on Twitter, Dribble, Behance or her website.

Design Digest

Design Digest publishes curated stories weekly on…

Sarah Healy

Written by

A multidisciplinary designer, storyteller, and adventuress with a penchant for endurance feats and exploring blank spots on the map.

Design Digest

Design Digest publishes curated stories weekly on creativity, design and why it matters.

Sarah Healy

Written by

A multidisciplinary designer, storyteller, and adventuress with a penchant for endurance feats and exploring blank spots on the map.

Design Digest

Design Digest publishes curated stories weekly on creativity, design and why it matters.

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