The Creative Power of Your Sleep: 10 Easy Practices

Your sleep and dreaming may be untapped resources for boosting creativity.

Posted Aug 21, 2019

Kelly Bulkeley
Source: Kelly Bulkeley

Creativity is not a privilege or a gift. It is a natural capacity of all humans, the dynamic outgrowth of healthy living. Your creative potential can be cultivated and strengthened, or diminished and ignored.

If you are interested in boosting your creative energies, take a close look at your sleep and dreams. There are several easy practices you can learn to draw maximum power from the natural rhythms of your mind and body during sleep. If you are not engaging in these kinds of practices already, you may be limiting your creative efforts in other directions.

These 10 suggestions build on each other. The more you do with the early ones, the better you’ll do with the later ones.

1. Develop and maintain regular sleep patterns.

This is the simplest yet the hardest thing for many people to do. We vary greatly in how much sleep we need, when we prefer to go to sleep, what time we naturally wake up, etc. Some people need only five or six hours of sleep per night to feel good and rested, while others need at least eight or nine.

Find out what your ideal sleep pattern is, and make it an intentional practice to preserve and protect it. Even moderate sleep deprivation can have negative effects on cognitive functioning, and the first thing to weaken is your mental flexibility and capacity to adapt to novel situations. To keep your mind at its creative best, take good care of your sleep patterns.

2. Pay attention to threshold experiences between waking and sleep.

The moments when you are just fading from wakefulness to sleep (the hypnogogic state) and when you are transitioning out of sleep into wakefulness (the hypnopompic state) frequently include odd bursts of thought, imagery, and emotion. The brain is working in an unusually complex way during these brief, liminal experiences, and many artists and innovators have said they draw creative inspiration from this particular capacity of the mind.

If you pay attention to the mental flashes that cross your awareness while moving in and out of sleep, you may find some strange jewels of insight and intuition.

3. Experiment with sleep trackers, then put them aside.

“Know thyself” is a good motto with sleep as with any other aspect of one’s life. Numerous sleep trackers are available, and they can give you a basic sense of how the rhythms of your sleep are shaped by the alternation of your brain between phases of rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.

If you use any sleep tracker over time, you will see for yourself how you tend to get more non-REM sleep during the first half of a regular night’s sleep, and more REM sleep in the second half. This is valuable information to know because it will help you refine and optimize your sleep patterns going forward.

4. Protect the final REM phase of the night.

During non-REM sleep, your brain slows down somewhat, but when it enters REM sleep, your brain becomes as intensely activated as it is when you are wide awake. Why is that? What is the brain doing in REM sleep that’s so important it justifies this massive expenditure of neural energy?

I think the answer is clear: The brain is dreaming. The brain needs to dream. Not all dreams occur during REM sleep, but most probably do.

The longest phase of REM sleep usually occurs at the end of the sleep cycle. So if you want to help your mind get the most creative stimulation from the natural rhythms of your sleep cycle, I suggest you do whatever you can to protect the final REM phase of the night. If you can avoid disruptions to your sleep during that time, you will give your mind its best opportunity to draw strength from the powerful dynamics of your dreaming imagination.

5. Take advantage of rebound sleep.

Most people have busy lives, and every now and then, something happens to shake up your normal sleep cycle. You stay up late for a party, you travel a long distance, you’re taking care of someone who’s sick—whatever it is, you don’t sleep well for a night or two. Fortunately, the human sleep cycle is flexible, so you can make it through such sleep-starved times without any lasting damage.

The one predictable consequence of brief sleep deprivation is that when you can sleep normally again, you will experience a “rebound” of more sleep than usual. It’s as if your brain is making up for the lost time.

Researchers have found that rebound nights can be especially dense in REM sleep. So if you can foresee a night when you’ll just be back from a tiring trip, or just finished with a big work project, or something like that, make sure you really give yourself a chance to sleep as long as you can. You will likely be rewarded with an especially bountiful harvest of dreaming.

6. Keep a dream journal, starting with dreams from early in life. 

Once you start paying attention to your dreams, you’ll want to record them in some kind of journal or notebook. When you’re just beginning a dream journal, it’s helpful to write down some of the earliest dreams you can remember, from all the way back in childhood if you can recall any. This is a way of priming your dreaming imagination and initiating the process of bringing your dreams out into the waking world.

All sorts of good creative energies flow from the simple practice of keeping a dream journal.

7. Pay attention to patterns.

Once you begin paying attention to your dreams, you’ll notice recurring themes, images, and characters. These patterns are clues to your own psychological concerns, strengths, and vulnerabilities.

Many artists and innovators have found inspiration by honestly confronting the dark themes of bad dreams and nightmares, so don’t be discouraged if you find negativity in your dream patterns. Even the darkest dreams also have elements of light.

As you track your dreams over time, you’ll get better at seeing the amazing multiplicity of meanings, beyond simplistic dichotomies between light and dark.

8. Explore lucid dreaming — awareness, not just control.

Lucid dreaming is the experience of becoming conscious within the dream state. This can be exhilarating and transformative; it’s a kind of Enlightenment experience, realizing how we create the realities in which we live. Many religious and spiritual traditions, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Daoism, have pursued the creative potential of the mind in lucid dreaming, and this potential exists within everyone.

People in contemporary Western society should be careful, however, not to be misled by promises about controlling or manipulating dreaming, as if it were merely a virtual-reality construct. The waking ego can achieve a degree of control over the dreaming process, but far more is lost than gained by such efforts. Try to become more conscious and aware in your dreams, not more domineering and self-centered.

9. Experiment with dream incubation and pre-sleep intentionality.

Dream incubation is the practice of preparing oneself for a special kind of dream. Many religious and cultural traditions have developed dream incubation rituals involving a special place, or time of year, or prayers and incantations to elicit a dream response.

Today you don’t need anything more esoteric than a clear mind that focuses on a specific question, problem, or concern before getting into bed. If you go to sleep with the intention of opening yourself to whatever your dreaming imagination has to say in reply, you will almost surely receive something of interest when you wake up the next morning. It’s not an automatic process, but the mere effort of welcoming a dream like this is a creativity-stimulating practice.

10. Find someone with whom you can share dreams.

You can learn a lot by exploring your own dreams. You can learn even more by sharing your dreams with others and listening to their dreams in return. There’s no need for deep analysis or elaborate interpretation; just talking with another person about dreams helps bring your creative energies and intuitions more fully into the waking world.