Insomn-iscent: The What’s and Why’s of Insomnia

I’m having an affair.

It’s been going on for quite some time.  You see, 4am and I, we’re inseparable.  And you’re saying: “How could you? Don’t you love your sleep?”  Well, certainly.  Because even after all the mistreatment, I go back to sleep eventually.  And just like the manipulative ex it is, it’s always waiting for me.  It knows I can’t live without it, the sly bastard.

But in the cherished time I spend with my beloved insomnia, I always have a few options to consider.  I could:

  1. Sulk, complain, and dramatize it by pretending that no one understands my “suffering”, thus romanticizing and trivializing a rather serious medical condition, or
  2. I could attempt numerous, prescribed relaxation techniques with varying degrees of success, or
  3. I could actually use this time somewhat productively.*  Go figure.

This would perhaps be an opportune time to point out that I am currently writing this at 02:23, in pitch-darkness, using the app on my phone.  The screen settings are set to “Invert Colours” for the sake of my exhausted retinas, and the way things are going tonight, it seems my brain will be content to while away the hours in this fashion until the sun violates me by shoving it’s irritatingly cheerful face in my window.  I will hiss menacingly at its arrival.  Nevertheless, I am being productive in my own way.  Because what better time to get any kind of work done than in the wee hours of the morn?

No, really.  Here’s a list of people who felt the same way:

  1. Sir Isaac Newton
  2. Robert Burns
  3. Winston Churchill
  4. Napoleon 
  5. Albert Einstein
  6. Charles Dickens
  7. Mark Twain
  8. Vincent van Gogh
  9. Margaret Thatcher
  10. Marilyn Monroe

(Granted, Einstein didn’t really believe in eating either, as he felt it was a waste of his time.)  Aside from that, however, these people shared a few key personality traits; high levels of creativity, divergent thinking, ambition, and motivation are among them.  Moreover, the observance of anecdotal evidence of this kind has spurred further research into sleep.  According to UCLA’s Sleep Disorder Center, humans spend about a third of their lives sleeping, and yet very little is known about why we do it, or what occurs in our brains while we do.  Brain-mapping has aided researchers in determining which parts of the brain are active during sleep, but the question remains: why are our brains so active during a period of “rest”, and why do insomniacs seem to need less of it to adequately function?  Psychologists have devoted a staggering amount of time to studying work and play, the two other main activities in our lives, while exponentially less effort has been invested in learning about sleep and sleep disorders.  I would have engaged in studying the phenomena myself if I didn’t find the idea of practicing science as abhorrent as Stalin found democracy.  Seriously, I’ll read about it until I burn lettered imprints into my sockets, but I wouldn’t don a lab-coat for all the vintage wine in Western Europe.

But I have digressed.

Apparently, there is substantial evidence to show a relationship between creativity and insomnia.  After a few Google searches, and the perusal of a number of academic sources from my well-stocked campus library (which I shan’t cite here because I am not pulling direct facts from them), I have come to the conclusion that while the effect is certainly not causal, there is a direct correlation between levels of creativity and insomnia.  It could be that creative people are natural insomniacs; conversely, it could also be that insomnia induces an elevated state of creativity.  Either way, the sleep-deprived appear to involve themselves a little more in the ways of messy thinking.  Sleep is proven to be a time when neural pathways are created and strengthened; but I would argue that I’ve made more tangible neural connections as a result of staying up for hours at a time and thinking constructively.  At a certain point, sleep deprivation takes you to another, rather elevated place in your brain, and once you get used to that alternate way of thinking, it almost becomes a comfortable and meditative place to return to.

Unfortunately, though I’d like to say I always opt for door number three and “get stuff done”, as it were, I tend to rotate through my above-listed options.  This is mostly because I’m lazy, and often far too weary to commit to doing something at 3am.  A common misconception surrounding insomnia is that those who have it are never tired.  This is entirely false.  Insomniacs are just accustomed to being perpetually exhausted, and lack the ability to “shut down” and sleep.  And depending on the individual, this can be caused by anxiety, restlessness, or creative impulse.  Now, I should also mention that there are consequences to extended sleep deprivation that can be somewhat disastrous.  Heart-related conditions and maladies, memory loss, decline in cognitive ability, weight gain, depreciation of muscle mass, and constant depressive states are but a few of the most noticeable effects of chronic insomnia.  But please. If you are not an insomniac and you take nothing else away from this post, take this: we know that not getting enough sleep is bad for us.  Don’t be the generation Y, self-loving, supplement addicted, rooibos-matcha-infused-tea drinking, yoga-doing, yuppie that tells the chronic insomniac to try his latest blend of herbs and spices that he “swears will knock you right out, man”.  I’m not a chicken breast, I don’t need your herbs and spices.  We’ve tried the melatonin, and the meditation, and just about everything that you could never think of, because you probably haven’t done much research on the subject.  So unless you’d like an ill-aimed punch to the jaw (lack of sleep = decreased motor ability + diminished hand-eye coordination), please never tell an insomniac that they “just need to sleep more.”  We know.

And now, feeling replete with creative satisfaction, I must end my nightly affair and return, stumbling and belligerent, to sleep.  But I will leave you with my favourite quote concerning this eve’s subject of honour:

“He would lie in the bed and finally, with daylight, he would go to sleep. After all, he said to himself, it is probably only insomnia. Many must have it.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Clean Well Lighted Place

I am, insufferably,



*It would be prudent of me to note that the term “productive” is used very liberally here, considering I do procrastination better than George RR Martin.


I have included a few of the sources I pulled from for this article, should you wish to do further reading on the subject of sleep and sleep disruption.

Book: The Neural Control of Sleep and Waking by Jerome H. Siegel


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