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Sleep, Covid and Creativity

And how much sleep is enough?

· Neuroscience,Health

I’m a big advocate for sleep…who isn’t? Bit specifically I’m interested in the relationship between sleep and brain health.

There’s a growing body of research that shows the importance of sleep and the need to be fully rested for your brain to function at its optimum, ensuring longer term brain health and enabling connections to creative responses.

Dr William Dement, director of the Stanford University Sleep Research Centre, says it’s only recently that the evidence on healthy sleep have become part of the messages to achieving productivity and creativity.

He reinforces the need for sleep as an important precursor to creativity, pointing to the preparation necessary before creative insights are achieved. Creativity is dependent on learning and memory and these capacities are strongly affected by sleep patterns and the lack of sleep.

He says of particular relevance is the motivational element that highly creative people have and “a lifetime of sleep research has shown me that motivation is one of the first things to go when sleep is shortchanged”.

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So I was interested that many of my colleagues have noted that during the current lock down period and increased working from home, they have got more sleep. I wondered if this has resulted in a change in their creative outputs. Too soon to tell but they have commented that many of them have coped surprisingly better and they put it down to a few more hours sleep each night given they weren’t doing the daily commute.

So how much sleep should we aim for?

The US Centre for Disease Control stipulate a minimum of seven hours of sleep a night for the average adult. In other words, the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

But they also noted that more sleep doesn’t relate directly to a better health or a lower mortality risk. It looks like once you get past nine hours, you actually start to see a worse mortality risk.

Researchers offer two explanations for this:

The first is that it may be that individuals are suffering from significant disease and illness. When we are ill, we typically try to sleep and stay in bed longer. In those studies, it was in fact the unmeasured disease and sickness that was triggering a response in those individuals sleeping more.

The second possible explanation is poor sleep quality, because we know that sleep quality, independent of sleep quantity, is also associated with mortality risk. The lower your quality of sleep is, the higher your risk of poor health and mortality.

People who have poor quality of sleep will typically try to sleep longer to overcome that poor quality and it may be this that is associated with a higher risk of death, rather than the long sleep itself.

There’s another big factor influencing our sleep patterns. On average we’re getting two hours less sleep then we did a century ago, largely due to our floodlit life, the proliferation of electric lights followed by television, computers and smart phones as well as our increasingly restless lives.

So while we all have different sleep preferences, the basic recommendations to a smart sleep pattern is to reflect on your sleep hygiene.

Which of these are part of your sleep routine and which can you add to enhance your brain health and ultimately your creative output?

  • Create a soothing wind down pre sleep routine and calm your mind
  • Stick to a sleep schedule going to bed and rising at the same time
  • Exercise but not too late in the day
  • Avoid (or at least evaluate) your caffeine, alcohol, drugs and meal intake before bed
  • If you nap, do it early in the afternoon
  • Relax in dim light (no blue light from LEDs or devices)
  • Create a dark, cool and quiet bedroom
  • Enable your core body temperature to drop slightly before sleep with a shower.
  • To help flush toxins from the brain, sleep on your side as this increases the efficiently of the glymphatic system
  • Get sunlight in the morning to help your cycle
  • Finally, get informed, as ignorance can be the worst sleep disorder.


For more stuff like this look out for the upcoming release of ‘The Creative Advantage: How the intersection of science and creativity is revealing life’s ultimate advantage’.



Dement, W. (2000) Promise of Sleep. Random House, USA, 313

Walker, M TED talk

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Swart, T interview with Dr Chatterjee 

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