Incubation part 3: Why we (should) sleep on it

Why should we sleep on it? This post discusses incubation, sleep, and dream theory! My own experience, words from a sleep psychologist, and a wacky experiment examining the creative process.

"sleep and dreams and creativity" by Rachel Olsen:

“sleep and dreams and creativity” by Rachel Olsen:

My own experience:

So you remember how I was working on a novel and I just couldn’t finish it? Right, right, that was months ago. Well, I finally had a breakthrough!

I originally envisioned this novel in three parts, but currently only two parts of it work well. So I was thinking that parts one and two combined work as a standalone novel, with some revision.

But the problem that was to be solved was, at the end of part two, the heroine and her lover part on opposite sides of an intergalactic war. As enemies. So sad! And since I’m the kind of person who doesn’t deal well with sad endings (open that box of worms another day), this ending had to be fixed!

I’ve struggled and struggled with how to combine part three (enemies become friends and they end up fighting on the same side of the war) into the ending of part two. It just wasn’t working. After doing no work on it since March – i.e. a 6-month break where I just talked about it with different people, and showed it to a couple of friends whose creative opinions I respect – I woke up one morning last week and just new that there was a solution at the back of my mind. I kept going, “No! Enemies? No!” which isn’t a coherent line of dialogue, but that’s how my heroine was now responding in my head to the break-up at the end of part two.

I thought about it on and off that day, and finally had the “Eureka!” moment. I’ll add a few more scenes. She’ll have to fight him at least once in battle, but then maybe get shot down, for the second time in the book, and run away with him. Hmmm… As you can see, I’m still playing with the idea. But I think this will work better with my own personal sense of integrity, so long as I can get it to “sound” right. Not like a soppy romance.

This breakthrough has had me thinking more about incubation theory, which I love so dearly. (For more on incubation theory, read Post 2 from 22 February, 2012: “Incubation: Creativity never sleeps… or does it?” ( and Post 6: “The Withers Survey: Studying the presence or use of incubation in the creative process.” (

What’s made the difference? How did I get here? I’ve worked on no other novels in the intervening gap – although I wish I had! It might have gone faster!

I’ve gone back to having my crazily detailed story dreams again. It’s wonderful J I’ve missed those logical plotlines inhabited by psychotic characters. So maybe sleep has a lot to do with revamping my creativity again?

So, let’s talk about why we should allow ourselves to sleep on it – literally – when it comes to our projects.

An experiment in sleep deprivation and creativity:

Sean Williams has a similar creative process to mine, in that he focuses on the ideas he gets in dreams.

ifBook: n00bz recently featured a very cool experiment about sleep deprivation and its effects on creativity ( The question was, if you take away the control that a writer has over when they write and how they write, do they still write the same?

Sean Williams, the post’s writer said, “Our sleep, meals, test batteries, and work periods were unpredictable and completely beyond our control. The plan was to turn the tables on our usual creative processes on several fronts at once. We would attempt to produce quality work regardless.”

Sean worked from home as a writer usually anyway, so his hypothesis was that a lack of control over his sleeping routine wouldn’t change his ability that much. “I write all sorts of weird hours, particularly when travelling, and I often work on planes, where time is irrelevant (I’m typing this on a long-haul flight, as it happens). My sense of day is slippery.”

But he and the other participants and scientist supervisors actually found that the lack of control over their sleep hugely affectedly their ability to be creative. When they sleep deprived the writers, they could not write as coherently.

They had no clocks, so they had no idea whether they were getting “enough” sleep or not. They thought they were still functionally fairly well, but the regular testing sessions showed just how badly their brains were functioning.

“For the first half of the study we were kept awake for extended periods without any sleep at all, while for the second half we alternated short sleeps with approximately nine-hour days. The latter regime was unbelievably grueling. My body clock couldn’t line up because the number of hours in the days just didn’t match.”

Sean said, “I wanted to be creative, needed to be creative, but all I had was this formless mania that I sometimes feared bordered on actual paranoia.” Now that’s an enforced period of incubation for his projects.

He knew something was wrong with his usual sleeping pattern and therefore his creative process because he wasn’t dreaming. Dreams are where he gets his best ideas. He joined the project to analyse his brain patterns during one of these dreams – but at first they just weren’t coming. When they did finally come, there was only one idea, very brief, that he wrote into a story. After that, it was just a mush of recycled action from the day. “Without rain, the well eventually runs dry. Without variability or new input, there can be no creativity.”

How did he deal with this dry spell? He edited the final pages of his latest novel. His editors in the outside world seemed a little concerned about the quality of his work, given his brain fatigue, but it seemed to be up to scratch in the end.

So point one is that creativity can be greatly affected by dreams and how much or how well you sleep.

A TED talk on why we sleep:


I was listening to this TED talk recently by Russell Foster titled “Why do we sleep?” (

Apparently, we sleep for 32 years of our life!

Good old Russ says that there’s good evidence for the ‘restoration’ hypothesis – i.e. We sleep so that we can “turn on” the genes that are used for restoring our brain to full health and energy levels. This theory began with Aristotle.

But another theory, which he prefers, is ‘brain processing and memory consolidation’. If you sleep deprive individuals, they cannot remember the tasks you gave them. It’s more than just memory, though; it’s also our ability to come up with novel solutions to problems. Sleep at night enhances our creativity! In our brain, the synaptic neuron connections that are deemed more important are strengthened while we sleep, and the less important ones are allowed to weaken, so we forget the information that it decides we aren’t going to use again in a hurry.

But if you don’t sleep, you forget everything.

Related tangent: Mental illness and sleep are physically linked in the brain. The genes in the brain that cause you to sleep normally are overlapped with the genes that cause you to have normal mental health. Even ancient studies on schizophrenia showed that this mental illness was strongly “linked to” (note: not “caused by”) insomnia in patients.

If you don’t sleep, your body will make you crave stimulating drugs like caffeine and ecstasy, and it goes into starvation mode, so that you also crave fat-creating carbohydrates.

So point two is that our brains need us to sleep, and sleep regularly. Sleep enhances our creativity and allows us to come up with new ideas!


a)      The creative process needs incubation. My theory is correct.

b)     Sleep helps us be creative. Sleep incubates ideas. And, nice side benefit, it keeps you sane.

Coming to StoryArts Festival Ipswich tomorrow? Join me in the Big Marquee all day to chat about editing your manuscript! Let me help you get your story straight!

(Ask for TJ Withers at the Interactive Publications table.)


This post was written by TJ Withers-Ryan © 2013. Reblogging is highly encouraged as long as you credit me as the author.

2 thoughts on “Incubation part 3: Why we (should) sleep on it

  1. Pingback: Writing the next chapter: What story will you tell in 2015? | TJ Withers-Ryan

  2. Pingback: Why we should get to play jigsaw puzzles at work | TJ Withers-Ryan

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