My husband is a night person, plain and simple. He begins to be alert approaching noon (regardless of when he actually got out of bed) and works happily between midnight and 3 a.m. While I’m not an early-morning person, once I’m awake, I’m awake, but anything I do past 11 p.m. is not to be trusted. I’m simply not firing on all cylinders at that hour. Perhaps it is because the end-of-semester-holiday-season craziness has all of us working at our less-preferred hours, but I’ve been thinking about an article in last year’s Scientific American that was titled, “The Inspiration Paradox: Your Best Creative Time is Not When You Think.” It describes a study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks that investigates how successfully college students solved problems at their preferred and less-preferred times of day.
Weith and Zacks investigated differences in student success solving analytical and insight problems at different times of day–and how that related to students’ views of themselves as “morning people” or “night people.” Analytical problems are exactly what they sound like—complex problems that require careful analysis and systematic thinking. In contrast, insight problems—sometimes used as a proxy for creative thinking in research—are not straightforward. In order to find the solution, it is necessary to look past the obvious and view the problem in a new way. The classic “candle problem” in which presents you with a candle, a box of thumbtacks, and a book of matches and asks you to attach the candle to the wall, is an example of an insight problem. [If you don’t already know the problem, stop and think about it. What would you do?] The solution requires that you think about the materials in a new way. Rather than thinking about the box merely as a container for the tacks, successful problem solvers envision it as a candle holder. Tacking the box to the wall and securing the candle in it is the best solution to the problem. Insight problems are not the same as creativity—certainly there are no original ideas being created—but they do require flexible thinking
Weith and Zacks found that, not surprisingly, people were more successful solving analytical problems during their preferred time of day. But insight problems showed a different pattern—students were more successful in finding less-obvious, less-straightforward answers at their less-preferred time of day. Interesting. One possible contributing factor is that we are less inclined toward total task focus, and more likely to be influenced by outside distractions, during our less-preferred time period. Perhaps such distractions, which serve as random input, may keep us from sticking to a straight-yet unproductive path and help generate more flexible thinking.
While the relationship between creativity and preferred time of day is not clear, it gives me hope. During these hours when I’m working late and never seem to have enough time for anything, perhaps my circadian glitches will push me toward more creative thinking. I surely hope so.
May your December be full of creative thinking—even if occasionally spurred by the hectic pace of the season!