Famous Tales of Sleep & Creativity

Sep 23, 2022 | Blog, Insomnia

Famous figures throughout history have found inspiration in their dreams, manipulated their sleep schedules to elevate creativity, and battled insomnia’s detrimental effects on their creative pursuits. Keep reading to get sleep tips from some of the world’s brightest and most creative minds.

“Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” – William Charles Dement, American Author and Chief of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Stanford

Notorious Cases of Insomnia

Insomnia symptoms occur in approximately 33% to 50% of the adult population.1 Due to its prevalence, there have been several notable cases of insomnia in famous figures throughout history, Charles Dickens and Franz Kafka being two excellent examples.

To control his affliction, Dickens would often get out of bed and walk the streets of London. He also had the habit of lying in the middle of his bed facing north with his arms outstretched. He believed this position would help his insomnia as well as aid in creativity.2

Kafka referenced insomnia 292 times in his private correspondence, indicating a chronic case of the disorder. Kafka had a notorious intolerance to noise, and as a result, started sleeping during the day and writing at night. This schedule perpetuated his insomnia and led to fatigue, poor concentration, and sleep-related auditory, tactile, and visual hallucinations.3

Dreamy Ideas

Some of humanity’s favorite books, movies, art, and music have been born out of dreams:
  • According to The Denver Post, writer-director Christopher Nolan dreamt of the idea for his mind-bending film Inception more than a decade ago. Nolan reports being intrigued by the mind’s creative potential and its proclivity for producing entire worlds.4 The award-winning film was primarily informed by Nolan’s fascination with the often indistinguishable blend between dream and reality.4
  • Mary Shelley – often referred to as the mother of science fiction – attributes her inspiration for Frankenstein to a nightmare she had following an evening spent swapping scary stories with friends.5 She describes the nightmarish scene in the novel’s preface:

Night waned upon this talk, and even the witching hour had gone by before we retired to rest. When I placed my head on my pillow I did not sleep, nor could I be said to think. My imagination, unbidden, possessed and guided me, gifting the successive images that arose in my mind with a vividness far beyond the usual bounds of reverie. I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.

  • The melody of the popular song “Yesterday” came to Paul McCartney in a dream. After waking, McCartney reportedly stumbled to his piano: “I just fell out of bed, found out what key I had dreamed it in…and I played it.”6 The hit has since become one of the most covered and highest-grossing songs of the 20th century.

Sleep Experiments

Some of the brightest minds would stop at nothing to get their creative juices flowing:

  • Thomas Edison was known to nap under his desk for around an hour up to three times a day.7 He would typically hold two steel balls in both hands when getting ready to fall asleep. For some of the naps, he would sit up in a chair to make succumbing to deep sleep more unlikely. He placed metal saucers on the floor below and as he started to fall asleep he would drop the balls. Inevitably awakened by the crashing sounds, Edison would have a pencil and paper nearby so he could quickly jot down anything on his mind.7
  • In Fifty Secrets of Master Craftsmanship, Salvador Dali describes using a similar method to Edison’s. Dali advised readers to delicately grasp a heavy key and place an upside-down plate on the floor below prior to attempting to fall asleep.8

The ability to sleep well drastically impacts creativity, so it is important to prioritize your rest. Somnology offers a comprehensive perspective to sleep monitoring and care, with the SLaaS® (Sleep Lab as a Service) platform, SomnoRing®, and our mobile app. We have streamlined a typical sleep diagnosis experience by delivering the technology and medical insight of a sleep lab directly to users. To learn more about SLaaS® and the effects of sleep, continue reading our blog or subscribe to our newsletter.


1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12119-insomnia#:~:text=Sleep%20disord ers%20are%20very%20common,at%2010%25%20to%2015%25

2. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.700882/full 3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29982086/

4. https://www.denverpost.com/2010/07/10/idea-for-inception-appropriately-began-as-a dream/#:~:text=Writer%2Ddirector%20Nolan%2C%20who%20turns,movies%20since %20his%20teens%2C%20

5. https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/mary-shelley-frankenstein-and-the -villa-diodati

6. https://medium.com/getting-art-done/yesterday-came-to-paul-mccartney-in-a-dream was-it-a-creative-miracle-79839cb303fe

7. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/thomas-edisons-secret-trick-to-maximize-his-creativit y_b_59f4d276e4b06ae9067ab91c

8. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/6-masterpieces-made-while-artists-slept