Over the past few days, my life has exhibited a certain pattern – one that consists of daytime sluggishness and nighttime alertness. It seems that my best and most creative work occurs in the wee hours of the night and morning, making the afternoon better spent on other things. Naturally, this led to a curiosity about human sleep patterns and whether or not it’s normal for an individual to be awake for the majority of the night and asleep for large portions of the day. More importantly, I wanted to know if it was a good idea to start embracing my natural sleep cycles. What I found was somewhat surprising but ultimately reassuring.
A “Normal” Sleep Schedule
We believe it’s normal to get all of our sleep at once; we go to bed at night, sleep for 8 hours or so, then wake up and go about our days. As it turns out, however, this isn’t normal at all. Rather, if given the opportunity, humans naturally fall in to a pattern of segmented sleep. This means they sleep for 3 to 5 hours, wake up for 1 to 2 hours, then fall back to sleep for an additional 3 to 5 hours.
What does this mean, though? Well, for starters, it sheds light on the fact that it’s entirely normal for a person to wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to fall back to sleep immediately. This is good news for those who are concerned about this period of wakefulness. It means there’s nothing wrong with them, and they don’t have to consult a sleep doctor or resort to using drugs to help them stay asleep. Knowing this could also help these individuals remain calm when they do wake up, since getting frustrated only serves to make things worse.
Discovering that it’s normal to wake up in the middle of the night was helpful, but it still didn’t completely explain my situation. Sure, it answered some of my questions and explained why I’ve never been able to sleep through the night, but it didn’t explain why my creativity starts coming to life at such late hours. This couldn’t be explained away with a simple sleep cycle explanation, so the digging had to continue.
Odds are you’ve heard of early birds/morning larks (those who enjoy waking up in the morning) and night owls (those who enjoy being awake at night). You’re probably well aware of which type you are. You may not be aware, however, that your type is actually determined by your genetics, meaning you have very little control over your sleep preferences. You also might not be aware that sleep preferences are directly tied to personality.
There are some fairly significant differences between night owls and early birds. Early birds tend to be healthier, more practical, and are better at setting and achieving goals. They also have the distinct advantage of being able to function best during the daytime hours when society expects us to work and go to school. Night owls, on the other hand, are generally more intelligent, more productive, are more likely to be creative, and have higher levels of stamina. Of course, they’re also more likely to be depressed because they’re less social.
What mainly caught my attention when reading about sleep preferences was the tendency for night owls to be more creative. This was, after all, what started me down this path in the first place. Knowing that I prefer being awake at night, it suddenly made sense that I experience an increase in creativity during that time. Yet, knowing this only told me that night owls tend to be more creative; it didn’t actually explain why.
Upon further investigation, I discovered that creativity best thrives under certain circumstances and that these circumstances are more likely to occur for night owls. They’re more inclined to consume drugs and alcohol (think Hemingway), are more adapted to living and thinking outside the norm, and they take more risks. The one that stuck out the most, however, was their greater levels of sleep deprivation.
When we’re awake and alert, our frontal cortex keeps us focused on incoming stimuli, sorts through it all, and filters out the things that aren’t considered helpful. It blocks all the silly thoughts and ideas that go through our minds, so we can get our work done and focus on what we’ve deemed important. This is why we often get distracted by outside stimuli during the day.
When we start to get tired, however, the frontal cortex starts winding down. It doesn’t work as hard to filter everything, which allows other parts of the brain to kick in. Have you ever gone to bed only to be bombarded by the strangest thoughts? That’s the result of lowered inhibitions. Your mind is finally allowing itself to think differently, causing thoughts that would otherwise be discarded to be accepted.
Most of the time, we push these thoughts away in favor of sleeping. If we choose to embrace them instead, we find ourselves at peak creativity levels. We let go of the inhibitions we have in our everyday lives and allow all the clutter to come forward. This ups our ability to change our perspective and think more freely. We’re also better able to shut out distractions, and we’re more willing to let our guard down. This means we’ll say and do things we typically wouldn’t say or do during the day.
Getting Down to It
If you, like me, have been really struggling to sleep at night and be awake during the day, perhaps it’s time to consider working a different schedule. Since I’ve started doing so, I’ve gotten far more done than I used to, I’ve come up with genuinely plausible ideas that I’m actually following through on, and I feel better than ever. If you can’t adjust your schedule or if you simply don’t want to, that’s understandable. Keep in mind, though, that
As far as creativity goes, it only makes sense to accept the natural sleep cycle of a night owl. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible since most people work during the day. Yet, considering that creativity also thrives under the conditions of exhaustion, it might not hurt to push the limits a little on how much sleep you get. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, rather than rolling over and trying to sleep, you could get up and see where your mind takes you. Waking up could be your body’s way of saying it wants to be creative.