Edna St. Vincent Millay, who wrote that her "candle burns at both ends," epitomized the image of the insomniac artist: a person so consumed with the creative act that she couldn’t be bothered to sleep. No wonder Millay’s friend Dorothy Thompson called her "a whimsical genius, sometimes . . . petulant and imperious . . . sometimes stormy, turbulent, and as unreckonable as the sea." The more overtired we are, the more irritable.
Of course, we forgive our artists their petulance and turbulence. It’s no fun to think of Shakespeare or Picasso or even Steve Jobs at their desks from 9 to 5 with a one-hour break for lunch and a 4 p.m. Starbucks run. A recent study in the journal Thinking Skills and Creativity, however, suggests that creative-genius hours don’t fuel creativity and insomnia probably isn’t linked to the creative act.
"We wanted to test the theory that people who are creative are tortured by their constantly churning thoughts—and whether staying up all night, struggling with insomnia is an indicator of the genius-madness stereotype," says Roger Beaty, a professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and coauthor of the paper "Tired MInds, Tired Ideas?"
Beaty and his team tested subjects’ levels of creative thinking and behavior. The assessment covered divergent thinking, (imagining uncommon uses for everyday objects), everyday creative behavior (such as making a birthday card for a friend or designing a website), and creative achievement (such as writing a book or recording music). Subjects also took an insomnia test that assessed daytime and nighttime sleep disturbance. The former includes waking up tired coupled with persistent tiredness throughout the day. The latter includes multiple occasions of wakefulness (at least 30 minutes) between periods of sleep.
The study found zero creative improvement among individuals with daytime insomnia and very slight, albeit statistically insignificant increases in creative behavior among individuals with nighttime insomnia. These were "little C" activities," which Beaty says is academic speak for less impressive creative acts, such as crafting, telling a joke, or making a gift.
"Our study suggests that if you’re awake all night, you might get more done. Maybe you’re redecorating your room," Beaty says. But you’re not producing high-quality creative work. "If you’re not well rested, you won’t have the ability to sit down and focus when you really want to function."
Beaty’s recommendation for artists and creative types? "Get more sleep."
Clearly, insomnia doesn’t make you more creative. But are creative people more likely to have insomnia? When Beaty ran his numbers in reverse, he discovered that people with the "openness to experience" personality trait demonstrated greater daytime and nighttime sleep disturbances.
"Of the "Big 5" personality traits, openness is most consistently related to creative thinking and behavior," says Beaty. Still, he doesn’t want to make too much of the correlation. "Openness captures a wide range of behaviors," he says. "Perhaps the part of openness that relates to insomnia has little to do with creativity."