Where Science Meets Muse

Cortisol Levels and Sleeping, Stress and Creativity

Posted by Plish on December 26, 2008

This recently published blurb in Wired gives three reasons why sleeping late may be better than going to bed early and rising early.

They are:

1. You may need more sleep than you think (i.e. You don’t sleep nearly enough)

2. Night Owls are more creative.

3. Rising early occurs during peak Cortisol levels so you may feel tension upon waking early.

When I checked the study responsible for point number 3, another interesting thing became obvious and it may account for point Number 2.

Cortisol is also at its lowest between 10pm and 1am. If stress hormone is low, creativity may be higher during these times.

FORMULA A: Less stress hormone (Cortisol)=more relaxed=more creative.

If I extrapolate a Creativity Curve based upon the cortisol curve we see the following:

Circadian Rhythm Graph with creativity

Possible Creativity vs. Cortisol Curve (michael plishka, 2008; red curve courtesy of http://www.phoqus.com)

Is the above relationship absolute? Probably not. The folks over at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine have shown that changes in stress (i.e the relaxation response) can produce “aha” moments. And, as I mentioned here, stress is essential to performance. So there are most likely some micro-stress trends within the larger trends that can help or hinder creativity.

Nevertheless, studies are starting to show that increased cortisol levels that don’t decline during the day may induce clinical depression.  So…

FORMULA B: Less sleep=greater stress=clinical depression=less sleep=greater stress…

It’s a downward spiral that will not help with creative endeavors.

What do we take away from this all?

1. We need sleep.

2. We have to be careful not to stay up too late. If we overshoot our lowest cortisol levels, we may have trouble falling asleep. Since cortisol rises quickly in the AM, we don’t want to be stuck getting stressed when we should be recouping. Rising cortisol levels also might maker it more difficult to stay asleep or get good quality sleep. That means waking up feeling sleep deprived and that puts us into FORMULA B above….bad news.

3. We need to learn to relax better- take time to meditate/pray/relax/play so that we minimize the effects of stress when we’re awake.

What are your thoughts on creativity and sleep?

23 Responses to “Cortisol Levels and Sleeping, Stress and Creativity”

  1. Sleep absolutely effects my creativity. It feels like there is a film over my brain.

  2. Plish said

    Thanks Susan! I assume you mean that as you have less sleep you are less creative? Any other ways you try to optimize creativity?

  3. Barb said

    Uh-oh. I think I need to reread that squiggly chart to understand why I LOVE working in the thin hours of the night. But you’re right, I get heavy-lidded and out of ideas about 4pm.

    Exercise seems to be the great opener for me.

    Thanks for the info.

  4. Plish said

    Barb, I’m glad you like the info. Thanks for sharing about exercise. I think that treating the body to some activity helps to get the mind out of its thinking ruts and get good stuff flowing through our veins!

  5. pilgebump said

    Equanimity in the transitions. Bardo between light and dark. Points of calm reflect points of stress. Round and round we go.

  6. Plish said

    Thanks for the reflections!

  7. The Eclectic Cleric said

    I’ve always romanticized an image of myself as a creative, burn-the-candle-at-both-ends, sleep-when-I’m-dead Nightowl, but the truth is the times in my life when I’ve been MOST productive have been a) when there was no TV to be found anywhere close to where I live and sleep. b) when I was getting to bed at a REASONABLE hour (typically, around 9 pm although perhaps as late as 10), c) when I was waking up naturally (i.e. without an alarm) about 7 1/2 hours later, and enjoying those EARLY hours of the morning (between, say, 4 am and 9 am) simply for myself, and mostly to write…with a shower, coffee, and light breakfast (cereal, toast, or fruit) squeezed in in the way of breaks. On that schedule, I could basically accomplish a half-day’s work before most people had even arrived at the office, and the most productive half at that. d) the rest of my day? Well, teaching (or attending class, depending on the time of my life), the gym, the library, hanging out at my favorite espresso cafe reading, or working in my diary. The real secret though is to stay away from the internet first thing in the morning! Besides the television, the computer is easily the worst time-suck known to modern society. Except maybe for video games, which combine the worst of both worlds….

  8. Plish said

    Wow, Electric Cleric, thanks for the honesty and insights! You’ve got some keen observations about certain technologies getting in the way of creativity. There is always something to be said for minimizing distractions so we can focus our energies. Multi-tasking or allowing multiple information streams into our brains while we’re trying, and need, to focus, is a recipe for lower productivity.

    Thanks again for sharing your honest self-examination. Happy New Year!

  9. Ugle Rimosen said

    Sleeping at night makes you more creative, question mark.
    Keeping in mind that correlation does not imply causality, an equally probable interpretation is that
    Those who are less conventional tend to be more creative.
    Those who are less conventional tend to have a less orthodox sleep cycle.
    Sleeping during the day, which is less conventional, does not bestove upon you more creativity,
    but people who are more creative tend to sleep during the day more.
    My own experience is that waking up early first gives me a boost for a couple of hours,
    then I’m a zombie for the rest of the day until late evening.
    No matter how much, or at what time, I have slept, I always like to sleep from 12noon ’till about 5 or 6pm,
    waking up fresh as a hardon.

  10. Plish said

    Thanks for commenting, Ugle.

    I agree that correlation doesn’t not imply causality, hence my statement in the post that there may be micro-trends at work. Part of the wonder of humans is that they do amazing work under the most non-conducive situations. There could very well be the ‘chicken or the egg?’ effect at work in this phenomenon.

    I’d like to believe that unconventionality=creativity, but I’ve seen too many people who are relatively conventional be extremely creatlve, both in artistic and non-artistic endeavors. I’ve also seen many people who are extremely unconventional not be terribly creative except in their unconventionality, which when being a trademark of sorts, becomes predictable in its unconventionality.

    Nevertheless, your basic premise that there are those creative types that flourish and have irregular sleep cycles is true.

    One thing is sure, and science is showing this, that humans that are sleep deprived simply are not creative and they make more mistakes- They tend to act in ways that resemble being under the influence of alcohol.


    It’s also a well known phenomenon that people who are under the influence (or sleep deprived) tend to over-value their creative output when in that state. So there may be some false perception about our quality of work (I know I’ve done it!) when we’re burning the midnight oil.

    Humans, while they can ‘over-ride’ their natural cyclical drivers, have better output when they’re in sync, so to speak. There’s millions upon millions of dollars spent worldwide to find ways of combating jet-lag, making more efficient/safe night-shift workers (which includes night launch Space Shuttle missions,) minimizing seasonal depression, and myriads of other human-made natural cycle over-rides.

    I think you’d agree, that if we can get into a good groove that takes advantage of natural drivers, so much the better, right?

    Thanks again for your stimulating thoughts!

  11. corinne said

    The discussion is getting interesting.
    I agree 100% with Eclectic Cleric’s comment about TV and internet being the biggest time sucks and especially the not opening the computer in the morning. (I don’t own a TV(don’t want to), but with internet only and it’s still bad).

    I’m a student (engineering) and my sleep schedule is chaotic at its best, I’ve always lacked sleep discipline, and it has negative effects on my productivity.

    If I get myself to wake up early at 5-6am (after ca. 5-6 hours of sleep) I will be very positive, up-beat and productive IF I don’t touch the computer/internet. Then at about 10-11am I would have a down, and if I go to bed I would sleep another ca. 4 hours. But then I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep in the evening until 3-4am, the next day I would wake up at 12-13 etc.

    I am most creative not necessarily in the evening, but whenever I’m not in the work environment, in a situation when I DON’T HAVE TO be creative, so it correlates with the low cortisol level. Except that I suspect that the evolution of the cortisol level throughout the day is based on individual schedule and commitments, in this graph it peaks at 7am because probably most of the study participants (have to) wake up at that time (it’s also the most hectic time with traffic etc), and the evening is their ‘informal’ time. So graph might just be an example for one style of life.

    For me either waking up at ca. 5am and working then or working after 4pm until very late works.

    Ugle Rimosen, I have one question for you, if you sleep from noon to 5,6pm, when do you sleep the other hours?

    I’m thinking of trying to discipline myself to sleep from 10pm to 3:30 am and then from ca. 12am for another 3 hours. (10pm, not because I particularly like going to bed then, but because some studies seem to show that between 10-12pm is the most restful sleep, but I don’t know if this is true)

    “Science arose from poetry… when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”
    ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

  12. Plish said

    Hi Corrine (and fellow engineer)! Thanks for stopping by!

    Great persepctives. When I dug more deeply into the science behind the cortisol levels I found that the fundamental cycle depicted in the graph, is pretty typical for most people who have no underlying health issues. What is really interesting to me (not to mention kind of cool), is that the cycle is basically dictated by light.

    So, for people who stay up late and sleep in late, or for that matter, work the night shift, their cycles will shift, right?

    Wrong! Turns out that our circadian cycles are tough to reset. Folks working the night shift still follow the same cycles to a large extent as people on the day shift. Stress levels increase because of that, and peoples’ health suffers for it. All the exposure to various types of light, artifical and real, during the course of a day, keeps us synched up (albeit with some stressors) to our ancestral rhythms. NASA (or I should say, NASA’s astronauts) had a tough time with night missions because inspite of attempts to reset the cycle, astronauts were being trashed by night missions (Their nights become days and vice-versa). It was only relatively recently that they hit on a method to reset the astronauts’ sleep cycles. It’s extremely controlled and while not impossible for a person like you or I to do, it would probably be impractical for us.

    Regarding the TV and Internet, they’re not just attention drainers, they are light sources and as such can mess with our cycles as well.

    It makes sense that the 10-12p would be most restful. I’m interested in your own “experiments” on sleep/creativity optimization-please keep us posted!

    Oh, and by they way, love your quote at the end. That might be worthy of a blog entry….hmmm…..

  13. The attraction of working late at night–be it creative or accounting (of the mundane NOT-creative sort) is that is is quiet. The white noise of the outside world is considerably diminished. There are fewer outside distractions (though easy enough to manufacture them online in forums and blogs, loL).

    It is hard to be creative when stressed or butt-dragging fatigued. Yes, most of us do need more sleep than we get. And, there are other–better–ways to de-stress rather than messing with natural low cortisol levels. The circadian dip in cortisol is not going to de-stress the mind. If one’s life is that stressful and one is not dealing with those stressors directly or managing the stress well, that “dip” will still be at a relatively high level.

    Something not mentioned is the role of food consumption in contributing to out-of-cycle wakefulness. Eating late meals, snacks, caloric beverage consumption all contribute to late night wakefulness.

  14. Plish said

    Thanks Flowersbyfarha! I agree with everything you said! I enjoy painting in the dead of night when the house was quiet and it’s just me and the canvas, paints, inspiration and God.

    Dealing with stressors during the day is also huge and if not dealt with, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is – we’ll be stressed. That’s also why it”s important to learn how to relax- we need to be able to train ourselves to relax either through meditation, prayer, workingout, etc.. When we do this, our natural ‘low’ time actually will be lower.

    Diet plays a HUGE role in keeping the mind from getting sluggish and it’s overlooked (and I think I should blog on it- thanks!).

  15. […] by Plish on January 4, 2009 In a recent blog comment here, Corrine ended her comment with the following statement: “Science arose from poetry… when times […]

  16. mc said

    I can sleep anywhere anytime – need more and can’t get enough. My wife though – needs more, cannot sleep peacefully, is very burdened by emotional stress resulting in getting up after a few hours and starting the downward spiral of depression. Are there any ideas on how to affect cortisol, or assist in sleeping other than drugs?

  17. Plish said

    wow..I totally can indentify with your situation. I’ve had times when I couldn’t sleep, but in general I too can sleep easily. However, other family members have a simliar problem to your wife, and while I’m not a doc I can suggest a couple things that have worked for myself and others:

    1. Great reference page on light therapy, things to do and not to do, and tests to find more about a person’s natural cycles
    2. Light boxes for light therapy
    3. Hide your clocks! Seriously! Don’t have a clock within eyeshot of the bed- it creates a type of performance anxiety when we keep track of how much sleep we’re losing or not getting. It’s a stressor-remove it!
    4. Meditation/Prayer/Yoga – Make time to relax during the day, learn to meditate, pray, focus; learn to detect when we’re on edge and losing peace-that way we can keep it from leaving us.
    5. Excercise – During the day this can help eliminate stress. Exercising too close to sleep time can make things worse though.
    6. Counseling – Talking about sources of stress and difficulty sleeping works!
    7. Certain teas be relaxing. I like SleepyTime myself.

    Again, I hope this helps and that you can find solutions and your wife can start getting some restful sleep. Please let me know if something works! Thanks for sharing.

    Legal Disclaimer: I am not a doctor so what I’m saying is not medical advice. Please see a physician for medical advice.

  18. manny said

    Hello All, What an interesting topic. I am the Lead P.S.G. researcher (Polysomnography)(The Study of Sleep and it’s constellation of purposes.)for our Company.
    Our research has shown that there is a bit more to the formula than what is being discussed here. For example the post from Mc on 01/04/11 stated that he can sleep anywhere, anytime. This is a misnomer. Productive sleep only occurs when the body is allowed to go thru the different stages of sleep. Each on serving a greater purpose helping to reach the next progressive step of the sleep cycle.
    These sleep cycles are known as N1,N2,R3,N4. It is important to note that all these stages are important, leading to the next level. R3 is the state commonly known as R.E.M. (Rapid Eye Movement). We reffer to this state as the Paradoxical state due to brain activity being simular to a fully functioning awake state even though you are temp. paralized unless you are suffering from a sleep disorder.This is the dream state where the different levels of dream states process the information taken in during the day, including stressor triggers i.e. The driver that cut you off on the way home that evening.
    The following level is N4 also known as “Delta” due to the brain wave activity during this time. Homornal modulators such as HGH and Ghrlen and Leptin among with many others are produced in this state. This is the state in which the body goes about daily maintence and repair, both physical and psychological.
    I should recommend that anyone that can fall asleep anywhere, anytime be tested for Chronic Sleep Disorders namely Disordered breathing if loud snoring is a factor. I.E. Sleep Apnea/Hyponia because this is simple mental exuastation and not healthy sleep.
    There is such a thing as too much sleep which ironically is just as bad as not enough sleep.
    This is friendly advice and not meant to dianosis any sleep disorder. You should always consult with your medical doctor who will point you in the right way, hopefully.
    Any Questions anyone? mlopes@relax2sleep.net Please give me at least 36 hours to respond as I have on going research. Thanks

  19. Plish said

    Thank you Manny for the details on the sleep cycle, much appreciated!!!

  20. Anton said

    Your conclusion is way hasted!! First of all, 15% of ppl dont even have circadian cortisol curves, and they do they differ alot from person to pereson.

    So could it be be that nightowls have cortisol curves that are higher in the evening (so that they are alert then)?

  21. Plish said

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Anton. Yes, you are quite correct that people have different rhythms or irregular rhythms. However, we all have a tendency to keep doing something if we like doing it; hence, activities in the evening can continue into the wee hours of the morning when the house is quiet and we’re relaxed and focused. The result is that we can over-ride our natural rhythms. Sure some of us have rhythms that are out of synch with others’, but the goal is to make sure we do get enough sleep and are relaxed (to a point).
    Thanks again for your insights!!

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