I came across an article recently by a psychology researcher that I met when I was at Otago University – her name is Dione Healey and the article was co-authored with Mark A. Runco. The article was titled Could Creativity Be Associated with Insomnia?

The study took a sample of 10-12 year old children who scored highly on a test for creativity and a control group of children who scored lower for creativity and compared their sleep disturbance. This research found that the group of highly creative children had a higher incidence of sleep disturbance (57% of the group) than the group of less creative children (27% of the group) – a difference which was statistically significant.

The authors suggested that “the activity of the mind” in creative people may lead to sleep problems in some cases. Highly creative and imaginative people tend to engage in “rehearsing, planning and problem solving” – it makes sense that this behaviour could keep them awake at night.

This got me thinking – in this world we live in today, creative pursuits are often stifled. The life of the starving artist doesn’t pay the mortgage on a house. Instead, just to survive, many people work long hours in jobs that can be heavily process driven, not allowing room for creative thought or problem solving. The lower down the food chain we are, the more decisions are made for us and the less opportunity we have to think for ourselves. When we get home from a long day at the office, it can be hard to find the time to pick up a paintbrush or write a short story – and then we tend to watch TV or read more articles online in which people tell us what and how to think.

It is true that a highly creative person is more likely to have an active mind and that active mind may keep them awake. However, I also wonder if the highly creative person who is deep in the daily grind does not make time to release that creative energy which naturally pulses through them in a day; then, this trapped creative energy gets used to worry and ruminate.

I searched for research to test my hypothesis that insomnia could be treated with creative expression and the literature was lacking. Although, I did find one paper by a registered nurse called Mary Rockwood on the link between creativity and healing in the medical world. She writes: “Research demonstrates that creativity heals: music not only affects the body physically, but also calms, or even transports the mind to a sublime realm, just as painting and sculpture may call up images that trigger deep memories or allow patients to access stories and archetypes of courage, strength and wisdom.”

Mary explains that when the brain engages in creative work, it alerts parasympathetic arousal – that is the opposite brain arousal of ‘fight or flight’, otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’. In this state, the brain sends messages to the body to change how it operates. The heartbeat slows, blood pressure drops, breathing slows, blood goes to the intestines, the body shifts into deep relaxation. Mary also explains that the creative process can cause specific areas of the brain to release endorphins and other neurotransmitters affecting brain cells and the cells of the immune system, relieving pain and triggering the immune system to function better.

“When people engage in creative or spiritual acts, even as passive observers, the process creates hope, restores optimism, and helps them cope with debilitating problems.”  – Mary Rockwood, Creativity and Spirituality in Nursing

Although sleep disturbance is a different conversation to physical illness, for many people insomnia is a debilitating problem. There are lots of other factors that affect sleep which make teasing out the causes of insomnia hard to do. It may be a lack of exercise, poor diet of too much sugar, caffeine or alcohol. It may be stress, or brain physiology, or a deficiency. But if you’re one for trying all possible options, then creative expression may help.

So, if you have been to the doctor and you have a clean bill of health, then maybe you have an amazing, creative mind and you are not expressing your potential. There is no harm thinking back to our childhood and remembering the creative pursuits we loved – be it music, art, or writing. These days, art can be digital photography, editing photos in Photoshop and creating home movies. I have often wondered whether this is the reason so many people around the world write a blog. For me, even if I have a mundane week at work, I am always creating something to offer the world on this site – and I’ve never slept better.

Much love XX

Image Credit: Bianca Truzzi

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Hi, I’m Katie. I am a kiwi neuroscientist with a love for consuming and creating content. This site is where I share my personal thoughts and the thoughts of incredible minds from around the world. PhD in Neuroscience, University of Otago.

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