Why do I get so many ideas right before I fall asleep?

If you wish, you may also read this article on Medium.

Why, indeed, does my mind suddenly awake when the rest of me should be falling asleep? I have a theory. Most of the day, the part of my brain that deals with logic, following established procedures, and critique, is awake. It is quite useful, as it allows me to recall the proper way to do household chores, the correct way to spell a word, and the practical range of a given instrument so that I write music that is actually playable. However, creativity is often a challenge during this part of the day. It can take real effort to cause it to awaken, and sometimes this does not even work. Why is this so?

One may recall the analogy from a previous article, about the traffic cop and the archaeologist. To expand upon this analogy: our minds are like cities. During the day, there is traffic everywhere. Cars move to their usual destinations, buses follow their predetermined routes, and cyclists move about their daily exercise routines. The traffic cop is quite at home in this environment; he knows the rules by which everything should operate, and directs the activity accordingly.

At night, however, there is little traffic. Because there is so little traffic, there is little need for anyone to direct it. This creates plenty of space for the safe movement of other vehicles or people. It is, therefore, the perfect environment for the archaeologist. It is the perfect environment for discovery. It is the perfect environment for experimentation with previously unexplored directions. One can drive on the wrong side of the street. One can ride his bicycle in a strange pattern. One may experiment with all manner of unusual methods. (I would, of course, advise against doing any of these things in the real world.)

During the daytime, our minds are full of the many tasks that must be accomplished. I must wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, and perform numerous other jobs. Each job involves only a simple procedure that may not require much thought, but taken together, they can create quite the “traffic jam” if not managed in an orderly fashion. The logical mind is essential for this. In fact, an archaeologist poking around in this environment can cause many problems (have you ever dropped something or tripped over something while daydreaming?)!

During the nighttime, our minds are clear. The tasks of the day have been completed. For the moment, there is little else with which to concern ourselves. There is little “traffic” in our mental space, which allows more room for creativity. The mind finds no critical tasks in the outside world; being a pattern-seeking device, it attempts to create its own patterns. It is in this environment that the act of creation takes place. As mentioned in a previous article, the act of creation invents new systems, rather than using established ones.

How can one harness this, especially if one must be concerned with a deadline? One solution is to simply move one’s creative time to the evenings. Many creators have done this. I have done this. During my university years, there was little other time to create, as the daytime was filled with classes and rehearsals.

Another solution is to simply keep one’s mind clear during the daylight hours. Done properly, this can be a powerful tool, as it allows the mind to create during the time of day when it has not yet exerted itself. There are many methods for doing this, too numerous to list here, but I will outline several that have worked for me.

1. The Walking Method. One of my favorite methods is to write down fragments of ideas, and then go out for a walk. Being outside and walking gives my “traffic cop” a simple task to regulate, distracting it. This, combined with the constant inspiration of nature and the previously-written idea, allows my “archaeologist” to play with the idea nonstop and generate new ones. After my walk, I can simply write the ideas down. Composer John Mackey says his process is similar (he has written a fascinating article about this here).

2. The Gaming Method. I play a fairly mindless videogame with the sound (or at least the music) turned off. The repetitive nature of the game lulls my traffic cop into a sense of complacency, allowing the archaeologist to explore unimpeded. I have composed several works this way.

3. The Acting Method (pun intended — look, it rhymes as well!). I focus on the “emotional core” of what I am creating, and then get in character as an actor might. If I am writing a piece of music that sounds excited, then I will attempt to get excited. Mentally, I will place myself in the scene. From there, the music can flow quite freely.

What do I do when I get an idea before falling asleep? This happens frequently, and I have lost no small amount of sleep because of this. The “muses,” as some may call them, can be quite the insistent bunch! When this happens, I know that I am unlikely to get any sleep with the idea rattling around in my mind, so I simply get up and write down the idea. Usually, I do not flesh it out completely; I write only enough to be able to remember it the next day. It might not even be properly notated. I might only have written a simple melodic fragment, with instructions such as “add a distant glockenspiel tone here” or “texture this with high, quiet strings.” The point is not to properly work with the idea, but only to store it until I have more time to realize its potential. The aforementioned “walking method” may serve this purpose well.

All of these methods accomplish the same thing: putting the “traffic cop” to sleep when he is more likely to interfere than to help. After all, he is better used after the creative process has finished its work. He is, by nature, an editor. He directs the traffic, but only the archaeologist can create the paths.

Unusually for me, this article was written in an evening, and most of it flowed out of me in a single sitting. Perhaps I have put the traffic cop to sleep for now. And perhaps, now that I have written some ideas down, my muses will allow me to sleep tonight?

Update: they did not. My muses kept me awake for quite some time, bombarding me with new ideas. Perhaps I must simply get used to this?

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