Creative Insomnia

“If the insomnia of a musician allows him to create beautiful pieces, it is a beautiful insomnia.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Common experience informs most of us that sleep is essential for insightful and creative thinking during waking hours. Beyond common knowledge, scientific studies confirm that, in particular, REM sleep enhances creative problem solving. A study conducted at the University of California – San Diego, illustrates that the four or five periods of REM sleep we experience at night (which typically total about 90 to 120 minutes), enhance our creative processing more than any other sleep or wake state.

Moonlight by Ilya Repin, 1896.

The study, conducted by Sara Mednick, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego, shows that REM sleep appears to help achieve creative solutions by stimulating associative networks, “allowing the brain to make new and useful associations between unrelated ideas.”

The study used a creativity test in which participants were shown multiple groups of three words and asked to find a fourth word that could be associated to all three words. They were tested in the morning and again in the afternoon, either after a nap with REM sleep, a nap without REM sleep, or simply a quiet period of rest. Those who napped without experiencing REM sleep along with those who rested quietly, experienced no improvement on the test. “Strikingly, however, the REM sleep group improved by almost 40 percent over their morning performances.”

On the other side of the coin, and the planet, a study in New Zealand of children ages ten to twelve showed that those participants who had high scores on creativity tests were more than twice as likely to have sleep disturbances than those who had average scores on creativity tests. The study suggested that creative abilities may adversely affect one’s sleep patterns.

It would seem that, depending on which research you favor, insomnia is either a hindrance to creativity, or a boost! From personal experience, we know that a vibrant imagination can keep a brain awake through the wee hours and that a fear of sleeplessness can amplify one’s inability to fall asleep! Some artists have argued that their insomnia is essential to their creative output. Unstructured time late at night provides them with extra hours free of distractions to create. Picasso was famous for his all night creative sessions and sleeping during the day.

We’ve found that one avenue for the creative insomniac is to take advantage of all the possibilities that painting at night can bring. And for that purpose, we’ve created “Nocturnes – A Primer on Night Painting,” available to download or in softcover at The Artist’s Road Store.

–John and Ann

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John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

About John Hulsey and Ann Trusty

John Hulsey and his wife, Ann Trusty created the website, The Artist's Road - Painting the World's Beautiful Places.  The Artist's Road inspires with practical art tips and painting techniques for the traveling artist, video painting tutorials and demonstrations, workshop resources, artist profiles and interviews and remarkable painting locations.  The Artist's Road is an artist community for oil, watercolor and pastel artists.  Articles cover intriguing art travel experiences artists have had while painting the world's beautiful places. "I believe I must speak through my art, for the preservation of Nature and the natural landscape from which I take my inspiration and living." John Hulsey is an accomplished artist, author and teacher who has been working professionally for over thirty years. In addition to producing new work for exhibition and teaching workshops, Mr. Hulsey continues to write educational articles about painting for national art magazines, including Watercolor magazine and American Artist Magazine. He has been selected as a "Master Painter of the United States" by International Artist Magazine where his work was previously chosen to be included in the top ten of their international landscape painting competition. He was awarded residencies at Yosemite, Glacier and Rocky Mountain National Parks. "I strive in my art to celebrate the mysteries of Nature - the fleeting light on the landscape, the unimaginable diversity of creatures, the beauty of each leaf and flower." Ann Trusty  is an accomplished third generation artist whose work embodies the natural world and is created through direct observation and translation of her subjects into her paintings. She has found inspiration in the dancing light across the water of the Hudson River (where she had a studio for ten years), as well as the big sky and waving tall grasses of the open plains of the Midwest (her current home). Her work has been exhibited throughout the United States, France and Turkey in both museum and gallery exhibitions, and has been reviewed favorably by the New York Times.