Daily Death, Part 2

I’ve blogged about sleep before, specifically how I didn’t get any and how sleep is a very strange phenomenon when examined closely. Now, in Part 2, I write about sleep from a different perspective: that of someone who gets enough.

Everyone knows sleep is important. Neuroscience research has shown that sleep allows the ‘replaying’ of neural activity that took place during wakefulness, strengthening pathways relevant to the prior day’s events. And a plethora of psychology experiments have shown that the human capacity for learning and memory goes down the toilet when people are sleep deprived.  A recent medical study has added evidence to the claim that sleep deprivation hampers our immune response.

When I worked as a neuroscience researcher, I averaged about five hours of sleep. Sometimes it was as little as three. My lack of sleep was caused by a combination of busyness and stress. Now that I write full time, I get seven or eight hours of sleep pretty much every night. Since then, I’ve noticed a dramatic change in my cognitive abilities, but the changes are different for logical and creative thought.

The clarity with which I can reason and attend have improved substantially since I started spending quality time with my bed. No longer do I listen to the end of someone’s sentence and realize I’ve forgotten how the sentence began. (Yes, after really sleepless nights that could happen.)

The effect of sleep on creative writing has a subjectively different feel. Some writers feel that they are most creative when they are half-asleep or when they’ve just awoken (see this essay by one of them.) My writing teacher describes his routine of waking at dawn and immediately writing by candlelight. He doesn’t wear his glasses because he doesn’t want to read the words, just let them flow. He claims that his best lines and descriptions come from those sessions.

I’ve tried a few times to do the same thing and have come up with fun lines myself. My favorite so far is, “a helicopter julienned the morning sky.” When I was sleep deprived and drowsy all day, I found it easier to come up with creative uses of language. Now, as a well-slept gal, I find it easier to explore larger-scale situational, plot, and character issues, but harder to toy with words. What to do? What to do?

As with mental illness, the unhinged-ness of the drowsy mind may give artists greater flexibility and inventiveness with language, metaphor, and description. A rare upside to sleep deprivation? Maybe. But for me it was small consolation for having to ask people, “how did that sentence begin?”

One response

  1. Becca, your blog is beautiful. I sometimes go through bouts of insomnia (not as severe as yours was, fortunately) and find myself useless as a mathematician the days afterward. I usually try to busy myself with non-math errands on those days and wait for better-slept days to get my “real work” done. I hadn’t thought that there may be a creative upside to sleeplessness–I can try doing some writing on these days and see how it comes out!

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