Tilda Swinton sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery 1995 in London. Photo by Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images.
While everyone loves sleeping, not everyone snoozes the same way. There is the proverbial “morning person”—after seven or eight hours of peaceful slumber, they can go for a jog and do their taxes before the sun rises. But others spend 10 hours tossing and turning, and are still exhausted while munching on cereal at 11:30 a.m.
But where do artists fall on the continuum of the tired? And is there a connection between creativity and sleeping habits?
A group of researchers asked a similar question as part of a 2016 study that looked at the sleep habits of 30 college and university students in Israel, comparing those who studied visual arts to those who studied social sciences. The research was conducted by doctoral students Neta Ram-Vlasov and Amit Green and nursing professor Tamar Shochat of Israel’s University of Haifa, as well as Orna Tzischinsky, a psychology professor at Yezreel Valley College.
The team looked for connections between the students’ sleeping habits and how they fared on tests measuring visual and verbal creativity.
Going into the study, the researchers hypothesized that “higher creativity is related to poor sleep quality, long sleep duration, late sleep timing and altered sleep structure.” They also expected that visual art students would experience poorer sleep than their social science counterparts.
All of the participants wore sleep monitors for five days and filled out daily sleep logs, where they answered questions about how they slept. Importantly, the researchers took various considerations into account when analyzing participants’ sleep, including measures of quality and how late in the day a participant woke up, not just the duration between falling asleep and waking up.
The team administered two separate tests to measure distinct aspects of creativity. To measure visual creativity, participants were given a sheet of 40 circles and asked to spend 10 minutes drawing whatever came to mind. To assess verbal creativity, the students performed the “unusual uses” test, which required them to write down as many uses for a tin can as possible in 10 minutes. The answers to both tests were scored for originality, quantity of responses, and other qualities linked to creativity.
What it found
By breaking down creativity into visual and verbal components, the researchers found something interesting: Each type of creativity was linked to different aspects of sleep. “Whereas higher visual creativity was associated with poorer sleep quality, higher verbal creativity was associated with longer sleep duration and later sleep timing,” the authors wrote.
The researchers also found that those who studied visual arts slept longer, later, and had a worse night’s rest than those who studied social sciences (thus confirming the experiences of many who have attended art school).
What it means
The conclusion that different elements of creativity are related to different elements of sleep may actually tell us something about the multifaceted nature of creativity. The study’s result “strengthens the hypothesis that the processing and expression of visual creativity involves different psychobiological mechanisms to those found in verbal creativity,” Ram-Vlasov told Science Daily.
It’s important to note that this study did not measure causation, only correlation. That is, just because you are a fitful sleeper, it doesn’t mean tha is the reason why you’re a highly visually creative person. In fact, it’s possible that the reverse could be the case—if your creative mind is whizzing away late into the night, you may not sleep well. As the authors note, many creative individuals report restlessness and an inability to return to sleep after waking when they are in the midst of periods of creative production.
More research is required to discern any level of causation with certainty, but “it may be argued that similar mechanisms regulating psychobiological arousal underlie both visual creativity and poor sleep quality,” the authors wrote.
While the researchers noted some limitations of their work—including the small sample size and the fact that the participants were sleeping at home, not in a controlled setting—the study’s findings are broadly in line with previous research.
One prior study discovered a link between creativity and insomnia in children and undergraduates; another found that sleep deprivation negatively affected verbal creativity. A third study found that arts students slept later and experienced increased creativity at night compared to health care administration students, but this 2016 study marked the first time the sleep quality of arts students was found to be worse compared to those of non-arts students. It turns out that the cliché of the haggard-yet-creative art student barely making it to class at 11 a.m. may have a scientific basis.