Hope Clark leads a dual life. By day, she writes and edits the newsletter Funds for Writers; by night, she plots murder mysteries.
“I’m very good at compartmentalizing,” says Clark, who spends her mornings on analytical problem-solving tasks like research, organization, layout, and editing. “There’s not a lot of creativity in my day job, but at night is when my mind wanders and I dream up all kinds of twists and turns in my characters’ lives.”
A recent study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University shows that, like Clark, many people have counterintuitive circadian rhythms—the daily cycles of physiological and cognitive activity—for creativity. Two types of problem solving were measured: analytical tasks that require you to work steadily toward answers (like doing your taxes), and insight ability, requiring out-of-the box thinking. The study found that self-described “morning people” who are more productive in the early daytime hours are actually better at solving problems requiring creative insight in the evening. The opposite was true for those who said they were more alert in the evening.
“The results of this study suggest that students designing their class schedules might consider enrolling in classes such as art and creative writing during their nonoptimal circadian arousal times,” explains Mareike Wieth, associate professor of psychological science at Albion College, who headed up the study while at MSU. “Math and science are better suited for peak arousal times.” Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in sync with their circadian arousal state.
Counterintuitive as it seems, it’s possible that the less focused you are, the more you are able to explore inventive possibilities. “You may be able to power through a to-do list and solve tasks with a specific answer during your peak circadian arousal state,” explains Keith Sawyer, associate professor of education at Washington University and the author of Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation. “But insight problems are more a matter of wandering down a number of paths to find the best solution.”
“I write into the night until I’m so tired I can’t see straight,” adds Clark. “And I’m often surprised by what comes to the surface.”