It happens to all of us. We wake up in the morning with an insight, a new way of thinking, a solution to something we hadn’t seen before. Connections we’ve never made.
Before I met my husband, I was a self-described “non-creative.” I was a hard worker, but the work I did wasn’t particularly innovative. I was great at regurgitating information, but not great at coming up with new insights myself. I was successful primarily because I brought a lot of insights back to my boss directly from our customers. I could hear and clearly convey what my customer was saying, but I wasn’t coming up with these new ideas out of thin air.
I was also chronically sleep-deprived.
As a self-employed person, tapping into my personal creativity has been crucial to my success. I absolutely must find new and innovative ways of doing things, so my customers will keep coming back. I have to stay ahead of the competition, but I am often working in a vacuum. To fuel my energy and creativity, I have found better sleep habits key to my survival. For years, I’ve been researching ways to power down my brain and improve my sleep with the end goal of clearer thinking and enhanced creativity. I’ve even written about it.
Lately, I’ve known several women older than me, in their 60s and beyond, having memory issues. Each has been referred by her doctor for a sleep study and diagnosed with Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). My relationship with each of these women has led to a curiosity about sleep habits among the elderly, and if or how we can help them overcome this issue and on a path to better sleep. As a yoga instructor, my knee-jerk reaction is that each of these women needs a daily yoga practice.
Seemingly unrelated: during a recent yoga training, I shared a room at the hotel with a yoga teacher friend, who’d brought her self-massage kit. She told me she brings the lacrosse-style balls to every training, and showed me how to use them to help loosen my shoulders.
It felt good so I bought my own.
After a couple of days of self-massage, not only did self-massage relieve the kinks, I’ve been sleeping better. I wake up remembering incredibly vivid dreams. I even have fresh insights for my clients.
This morning I woke up thinking: there’s got to be a connection between these seemingly unrelated threads.
What is really going on when we sleep?
Good quality sleep is a key to creativity
Sleep stages are defined based on how much electrical activity is happening in the brain, and what the activity looks like. An Electrical Encephalogram (EEG) is the device that gives you a readout of brain electrical activity in little squiggly lines, similar to the printouts we’re all familiar with from the movies in a lie detector test.
While a lie detector test measures things like blood pressure, pulse, respiration, and skin conductivity, an EEG evaluates the electrical activity in the brain.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine classifies sleep as occurring in four stages, happening in approximately 90-minute cycles maybe four to five times during a normal night of sleep. An understanding of what happens in the brain during each of these sleep cycles is crucial to understanding how sleep and creativity are connected, so bear with me here.
During Stage 1, as you’re drifting from consciousness to sleep, your brain is producing Theta Waves. These are the brainwaves associated with reduced anxiety, relaxation, meditative and creative states. Your brainwaves’ amplitude — how high each peak goes — gets a little higher, more synchronous during Stage 1.
This is where people often report hearing things, seeing flashes of light, or have the sensation of falling. If you’ve been doing repetitive tasks right before bed, those may recur as well. (More on this later!)
In Stage 2 of sleep, your brain continues to produce Theta waves along with something called “sleep spindles,” bursts of rapid, rhythmic brain activity said to help you block out stimuli and fall into the next stage of sleep. They look like a bunch of quick little bursts on the EEG.
During Stage 3, also known as slow-wave sleep, your brain begins to produce Delta waves. You guessed it: these are much longer and slower brain waves. Many neurons are firing together, pausing, then firing again — which is very different from how our brainwaves behave when we’re awake. You are very difficult to wake up during Stage 3, and sleepwalking and talking occur here.
REM or Rapid Eye Movement is sleep Stage 4, the one we’ve all heard about, made famous by one of the better pop bands of the 1980s — and the way the eyes dart around under closed eyelids. What you might not remember about REM sleep is that your muscles are paralyzed during REM — a good thing, because most dreaming occurs here. If you weren’t paralyzed and you started acting out the things you’re dreaming about, you might become a danger to yourself or others. Your brain is very active, but your body is completely inactive.
During a typical sleep cycle, you’ll usually go back and forth between Stages 2 and 3 before getting to REM sleep. After REM, the typical person goes back to Stage 1 and starts all over again.
How good sleep helps improve memory
We’ve heard for years that it’s better to get a good night’s sleep than to pull an all-nighter studying. But recent studies show that this goes far deeper than just being tired the day of the exam. Studies of brainwave activity show that memories are spontaneously replayed during sleep.
I’ve personally experienced the sensation of still bobbing around in the water after a day of sailing or going through yoga sequences in my head on repeat during Stage 1 while drifting off to sleep.
You can watch Penny Lewis describe how those Stage 2 sleep spindles are thought to be a marker of the reactivation of memory and assist in learning in her TEDx Talk, here:
How good sleep promotes creativity
Life experience has proven out when I’m working on a problem or making a big decision and get stuck, “sleeping on it” works for me. I had no idea how true this actually is.
Researchers theorize that in REM sleep, your dreams are abstracted, simplified elements of whatever problem you’re most focused on in your waking hours. Scientists at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center found that during sleep, the brain has the opportunity to track, file and integrate all of the information gathered throughout the day. This processing allows the brain to take seemingly unrelated concepts and bring them together creatively.
So, when you wake up the next day, that processing allows you to see what you were working on in new ways.
How the healthy brain relies on good sleep
We know that good quality rest is crucial to muscle recovery, clearing brain fog and just necessary for feeling good in general. Study after study has shown that people who sleep poorly are at greater risk for a number of diseases and health problems.
Of course, perception, judgment, and productivity can be affected. Drowsy driving is another big problem. But for some reason, I believed for years I could muscle through on not-enough sleep.
When I learned that slow-wave sleep has been specifically shown to flush the brain of toxins, I sat up straight and listened. Due to hormonal changes as we age, we get less of this crucial slow-wave sleep.
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, this starts in early adulthood. By the time we’re 60+, we’ll typically have lighter and more fragmented sleep, with periods of brief arousal or longer awakenings throughout the night. This prevents us from getting into slow-wave or REM sleep, the periods of time that most help our memory and creativity.
Hey — maybe that’s why my older friends are having trouble with memory — and getting referred for all those sleep studies!
How to get a good night’s sleep
I think I’m on to something with that self-massage and all the yoga.
As yoga instructors, we are taught to encourage back bending postures, with the goal of helping practitioners tap into the parasympathetic response.
“But isn’t yoga just stretching?”
Yes and no. The goal of yoga is to stretch tight muscles. That’s how we get people in the door. But good yoga doesn’t stop there.
Human beings by nature throughout our typical day are typically sitting with shoulders rounding forward, protecting our vital organs. Back bending postures, where the throat, sternum, heart, chest, and belly are opening toward the ceiling, work to help strengthen the vagus nerve and vagal network, command central for the parasympathetic nervous system. The vagus nerve tells the body to calm down by releasing acetylcholine, which prompts the release of oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin. This results in a slowing heart rate, calmer breathing, stimulated digestion, and more relaxed muscles.
When the vagus nerve is working correctly, the brain receives biological signals of relaxation including a regulated digestive tract, slower heart rate, and deeper breath. The message? All is well. There is no need for a sympathetic response, which is fight-or-flight. We can get into the parasympathetic response, rest-and-relax.
The National Sleep Foundation has found that massage can improve sleep quality because it triggers the release of serotonin, another neurotransmitter that can help you feel calm. Serotonin is the hormone that one of my older friends said her blood panels showed she was lacking!
So I’m following up with her, to see if she’d like to schedule some private yoga sessions. I’m working with self-massage to help myself get to sleep more quickly, and more deeply.
I’m making all of these connections on more, better quality sleep. Coincidence? I think not.
About the Author
Hi there! I’m Amanda Jenkins, Creative Director at MarketIQ, a Multi-Business Owner, Digital Nomad, Yoga Instructor, and Mom. If this article resonated with you, please subscribe to my personal blog. You can also get to know me better on these social platforms: LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.