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creativity and time of day

Are You More Creative When You’re Sleepy?

Gosh, I’m feeling so creative.

I’m a morning person. I wake up every day full of plans and optimism. I just know I can solve the problems of the world today. (Yes, I’m a bit obnoxious). In the evening, on the other hand, I run out of gas. I like to do a little light reading and go to bed early. A psychologist would say that the morning is my “optimal” time while the evening is my “non-optimal” time.

It seems logical that I would be more creative during my optimal time, no? Well, … maybe not. According to two psychology professors, Mareike B. Wieth and Rose T. Zacks, your non-optimal times may be your better times for creativity.

In a research paper published in 2011 (click here or see full citation below), Wieth and Zacks determined the optimal times — morning or evening — of 428 randomly selected students and then asked them to complete, three “analytic” problems and three “insight” problems. Analytic problems “…require the solver to ‘grind out the solution’ by searching through and narrowing the problem space.” In other words, you start on a path and stay on that path until you find the solution.

Insight problems, on the other hand, “are often solved suddenly with a ‘flash of illuminance’ … or what has also been called an ‘‘Aha’’ experience where the solution seems to just pop into mind.” The process of solving an insight problem is also different. People typically start on a given path, hit a wall, and then jump to a different path. As the authors phrase it, “…to move past the impasse, the solver must break away from his or her focus on the current representation of the problem and find an alternative way of structuring the problem space.”

Students completed their six problems at randomly assigned times. Some completed the problems during their optimal times, others during their non-optimal times. The results varied by problem type. Students solved analytical problems better when they worked during their optimal time. For insight problems, however, students were more successful when they worked during their non-optimal times.

Why would that be? Wieth and Zacks hypothesize that it has to with “…inhibitory processes [that] control the flow of information from thought and perception.”  Simply put, we can focus better during our optimal times because our inhibitory processes block out distracting information. That’s good for grind-it-out problems — our inhibitory processes help us focus on the solution path. With insight problems, on the other hand, distracting information can actually help us jump to the right path. During our non-optimal times, our inhibitory processes are less effective. We’re less focused and our mind wanders more. More “distracting” information enters our thoughts. All of that helps us discern other paths that can lead to an Aha experience.

So, do you want to be more creative? Just stay up late and let your mind wander. That’s not so hard.

Mareike B. Wieth & Rose T. Zacks (2011): Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal, Thinking & Reasoning, 17:4, 387-401.   This work was supported by National Institute on Aging Grant R37 AG04306.

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