my muse of choice

I came across an article the other night when I was very sleepy.

Today I googled “+creativity +grogginess” and found its source, it being an article in the publication “Thinking & Reasoning” (full text available here).

The paper, describing the results of a study, is titled “Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal.”

Love that title, especially the part about the non-optimal being optimal. Things aren’t always as they seem… especially when it comes to college students, the subjects of the study being over four-hundred undergrads.

The data suggests that we are capable of analytical tasks during pretty much any time of day, but that there is a marked improvement in our ability to perform insightful or creative tasks when we are at our “least optimal time of functioning.” I’ve paraphrased, so here is the abstract for those who prefer…

In a study examining the effects of time of day on problem solving, participants solved insight and analytic problems at their optimal or non-optimal time of day. Given the presumed differences in the cognitive processes involved in solving these two types of problems, it was expected that the reduced inhibitory control associated with non-optimal times of the day would differentially impact performance on the two types of problems. In accordance with this expectation, results showed consistently greater insight problem solving performance during non-optimal times of day compared to optimal times of day but no consistent time of day effects on analytic problem solving. The findings indicate that tasks involving creativity might benefit from a non-optimal time of day.

The period when we feel most alert is when we are experiencing what scientists apparently call circadian arousal, which shifts as we age (no, I’m not going there…). The older we get the more likely we are to be morning people, and the younger we are the groggier we are in the morning (I can document this by showing my husband bouncing happily around the kitchen at 6am while my teenagers sleep peacefully… Me? I’m somewhere in the middle).

All of this is well known, but what is interesting about this study is that its results show that we may not be as creative during our alertness, that a certain dampening of our intellectual acuity might actually assist in freeing the creative juices.

I can’t help but think of the various—often illegal and certainly not recommended—ways that creative sorts over the years sought out their muse (think Coleridge, Baudelaire…etc.), most of which involved some sort of taming of the intellect (or as the study called it “reduced inhibitory control) in order to invite creativity to wander, to awaken the senses.

I do find that during the day I’m best at functioning most sharply (relatively speaking), yet at night my ideas flow more interestingly, and yes, creatively, all of which is apparently no coincidence.

Thank goodness for espresso, my muse of choice.

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2 thoughts on “my muse of choice

    1. I was watching a video of Henry Miller talking of waking up and rushing to write down his dreams… Don’t you find that when you are in the “zone” of writing it is a bit like dreaming awake?

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