If you’ve ever woken up in the night with a racing mind, you aren’t alone. Many of us have trouble sleeping, particularly when we are stressed or have a lot on our mind. But not all nighttime thoughts are a nuisance - sometimes, we cook up our best ideas when others are asleep.
According to a 2019 survey of 2,000 Brits commissioned by Microsoft Surface, many of our best ideas are most likely to occur as we are falling asleep, when we first wake up in the morning and in the middle of the night. More than 40% of survey participants said they believe their bed is a conducive environment for creativity.
So why do our good ideas come at night - and is it possible to harness this power in the daytime?
“The conscious mind is like the tip of an iceberg. We barely scrape the surface of our creative and cognitive resources during average waking days, when we are bombarded with myriad stimuli to trigger emotions, distract us and absorb our attention,” says Victoria Stakelum - The Success Smith - a psychologist, NLP practitioner and breakthrough coach. “Beneath the waterline, that iceberg is an enormous mass of capability.”
When we’re asleep, we are more likely to access those unconscious, deeper resources that aren’t always available during waking thought.
“It's a bit like that flash-image that you get at the edge of your vision after seeing a flash of light. When you try and look directly at it, it disappears from view. Yet when you catch it in your peripheral vision, you can see it more clearly,” Stakelum explains.
“The answers to certain types of problems and lateral-thinking type solutions are a bit like this. When we are consciously and effortfully trying to work something out with our narrow and focused attention, it can be hard to 'catch' the answer. But during sleep, or as we are falling asleep or waking up, the veil between the conscious and unconscious is at its thinnest. These can be the moments when we are more able to tap into more creative and lateral problem solving and solutions.”
The quiet of night can also be a prime environment for creative thinking. During the day, we’re often distracted by messages, Slack, emails and video calls to let the mind wander, which can lead to divergent thinking and the generation of ideas. But when our screens are off and most people are sleeping, we are more likely to daydream freely - so to speak.
Although being tired is usually counterproductive, research suggests it can actually aid creativity too - which can explain why we’re more creative in the wee hours. If you are tired, your brain isn’t as good as filtering out distractions and focusing on a task. Our brains are also less able to remember connections between ideas or concepts, leaving us freer to make new connections and think in different ways.
Of course, dreaming up your best ideas at night isn’t always helpful. Not only does it interrupt our sleep, making us tired and less likely to feel creative during the day, we risk forgetting our great ideas once we fall back asleep.
“While it can make it feel like we are better at problem solving at night, it can be a bit of a hit and miss approach to finding solutions to leave it to the untamed subconscious to give you what you need,” says Stakelum. Therefore, it is more effective to use tools and approaches to help you access those deep subconscious resources during the day, such as mindfulness.
“It is possible to create a version of that deeply relaxed state that we are in during restful sleep and in the final stages of falling asleep, by practising deep and relaxing meditation,” says Stakelum. “If you are struggling to make a decision or need to come up with a creative or lateral solution to a problem, meditating on it can be a great way to unlock new thinking and find an answer deep within.”
Turning off Slack and ignoring your emails might not fly with your manager, but taking a break from technology for a short period can also help with creative thinking or problem-solving. Without the distraction of a notification, you may be more likely to let your mind wander for longer, which can generate ideas.
Changing your daily routine can also help you become more creative too. This might mean eating something different for breakfast, taking a different route on a walk or working in a new spot - whatever breaks up your autopilot routine.
“We tend to get stuck with problems because our thinking patterns are built up over time and form deep neural pathways, like grooves formed in rock by water repeatedly following the same channel,” Stakelum explains. “If you prefer a more active and lively approach to creativity and idea generation, there are a number of activity-based tools that can be used to 'trick' your brain out of it's usual modes of thought.”