Inspiration from Sleep


When I was in college, one of my professors shared a story about Benjamin Franklin. It seems that Franklin observed that his times of heightened creativity and problem-solving occurred when he was close to sleep or in the stage between sleeping and waking (considered by many the first stage of sleep). Yet if he fell fully asleep, he would often forget the ideas that came to him during the in-between stage.

So he began to take “naps” in a chair. He filled his hand with marbles and let it dangle over the arm of the chair, while beneath his hand waited a tin pail. Whenever he drifted toward sleep, his hand would slacken and the marbles drop into the pail. He would then jot down the ideas  floating through his mind–and certainly his creativity led to many useful inventions through the years.

Whether or not the story related by my professor is fact, scientists have observed that brain activity during the time between sleeping and waking often resemble the patterns that occur during periods of heightened creativity. Many other links between sleep, dreams, and creativity have been noted, but have yet to be fully explored.

I’ve noticed the tendency to have ideas when hovering on the border of sleep or when waking from a dream in the night. To take advantage of it, I keep a notepad and lighted pen next to my bed. Of course, many other things increase creativity, but it’s wise to make the most of any burst of inspiration, however it comes.

Do you have “creative times” where inspiration seems to flow more freely?

Image credit: spettacolopuro


  • Jenny Miller
    March 16, 2012 - 10:55 pm · Reply

    I’ve had story ideas come to me as I was falling asleep, too–even after a long day of writing, when I’ve had to stop to avoid snoring at the computer. If I didn’t have paper close by to catch these ideas, I’d loose a lot of good stories!

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 19, 2012 - 5:06 pm · Reply

      Exactly so–no matter how convinced you are that you’ll remember in the morning, it rarely works that way. I’ve learned it’s best to write them down as they come. 🙂

  • Mary Ruth Pursselley
    March 17, 2012 - 11:14 pm · Reply

    I keep a notebook, pen, and lamp next to my bed for those times when I wake up in the middle of the night with an absolutely brilliant idea. Of course, when morning arrives, the notes often turn out to be either sheer gibberish, totally illegible, or patently absurd… but hey, I didn’t let them slip away!
    And I do find that certain times and/or circumstances tend to heighten my creativity. Keeping my body active helps me channel and focus my mind’s activity, so I often go for a walk or do dishes – basically any physical activity that doesn’t require much thought. Pacing helps too, but it drives my family nuts. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 19, 2012 - 5:10 pm · Reply

      Mary, I laughed when I read your comment because I’ve had similar experiences…especially the times when I attempt to write them in the pitch dark, because I’m too tired to have a light on of any kind. Then it turns into a jumbled scrawl of overlapping lines, but I can usually manage to make it out given enough time. Or it will jog my memory sufficiently to recall and recreate the idea. 🙂

      Like you, I also tend to have ideas when I’m doing something else. Walks are a prime time, but household chores, showering, driving–they all seem to help ideas bubble to the surface.

  • Marlene
    March 18, 2012 - 7:19 pm · Reply

    Great ideas come to me at the most awkward times. I should be so fortunate as to entertain them at bedtime. I could be doing laundry down in the basement, vacuuming the carpet or have my hands in a dishpan full of soapy water and here comes a brilliant idea. Of course I told myself I wouldn’t forget something so wonderfully brilliant but I always did. So I began to leave little note pads with pens all over the place. At a moment’s notice I can dash to one with little effort. It’s worked out well except for the times I’m taking a bubble bath…hmm.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 19, 2012 - 5:15 pm · Reply

      Marlene, I know just what you mean about ideas coming at awkward moments. Being physically occupied seems to cause creativity to flow. 🙂

      I’ve begun using my iPhone more and more to record ideas that come at random moments, because I usually have it with me…or near enough that I can grab it and jot down some notes.

  • TheQuietPen
    March 23, 2012 - 10:39 pm · Reply

    Music inspires me–and often the oddest music. I’ve always been “in tune” with the ambient stuff played in the background in public places. Something in a random song will just hit me, and I’ll grab a notebook to write down the lyrics or else start muttering the lyrics to myself over and over until I can get home to Google the song! Occasionally annoys my husband when I cut him off in the middle of a conversation to listen to the “background noise.”

    I’m a perpetual note-taker as well, on any scrap of paper I can find, if need be. It seems no matter how many notepads I buy, I’m always in a place where one isn’t convenient.

    Also, any time after 10ish pm seems to be a great time. When sleep is just curling around the edges, I can sit down at my computer and write. I have just enough brain power to write coherently, but not enough to bring out any inhibitions. Makes for some interesting conversations with anyone who happens to be on FB chat at that time of night (aka, one time I messaged any friends/acquaintances with the opening line “if you had to kill someone…etc”).

    • Sarah Sawyer
      March 29, 2012 - 12:54 pm · Reply

      Music inspires me also. It carries a strong sense of emotion, which almost always stirs story ideas. But when actually writing, I can only listen to music without lyrics, or the words distract me.

      Something about the pre-sleep stage definitely encourages inspiration. We’re less likely to dismiss the unusual ideas that bubble to the surface and can end up greatly enriching the story. 🙂

  • Jonathan Lovelace
    March 30, 2012 - 1:31 am · Reply

    For my poetry especially, inspiration tends to come whenever I’ve given up on it and gone to do something else. But also when I’m supposed to be doing something else, or when I need to go to sleep (though that’s a special case of the second category), or when I wake up (except that those ideas almost invariably vanish before I can get them down …)

    • Sarah Sawyer
      April 2, 2012 - 4:46 pm · Reply

      Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan! Finding inspiration while otherwise occupied seems to be a common trend for writers. I know it happens to me all the time. I’ve gotten better at writing things down when they come to me, because I know otherwise I’ll miss out on some good ideas. 🙂

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