Are you struggling with a problem that requires a creative solution? If so, your impulse might be to attack it during that time of the day when you feel fresh, rested and alert.
New research suggests that would be precisely the wrong approach.
Participants in an experiment were more likely to solve “insight problems” — mind-stretchers that require an “aha moment” to crack — when quizzed during a time period when they weren’t at their peak. “Morning people” scored higher in the late afternoon, while “evening people” did better in the a.m.
A pair of Michigan psychologists, Mareike Wieth of Albion College and Rose Zacks of Michigan State University, report their findings in the journal Thinking and Reasoning. They assigned 428 students to fill out a standard “morningness-eveningness questionnaire," which features 19 questions including “Approximately what time would you get up if you were entirely free to plan your day?” and “How much do you depend upon an alarm clock?”
Based on those answers, participants were categorized as “morning type,” “evening type” or “neutral.” They were then randomly assigned to an 8:30 a.m. or 4 p.m. testing session.
During the session, they were given four minutes apiece to solve six problems. Half were “analytic problems,” which could be figured out “by working incrementally toward the solution.” The others were “insight problems.” Solving them generally entails reaching a dead end before going back and reconsidering your initial assumptions.
An example of the latter is the “fake coin problem,” in which the students were asked why a coin dealer called the police when he was offered a beautiful bronze coin minted in 544 B.C. The “aha moment” comes when and if you realize that no coin would be stamped “B.C.”
“Participants were overall more successful at solving analytic problems than insight problems,” the researchers report, adding “there was no significant effect of time of day” on their success rate for those puzzles.
However, “insight problem solving was consistently greater at a participant’s non-optimal time of day compared to the optimal time of day.” Morning people did better in the late afternoon, and vice-versa. Time of day had no effect on success rates for those in the neutral category.
Wieth and Zacks believe these results reflect the shifting strength of the “inhibitory process,” which “suppresses the processing of distracting information.” While this process is enormously helpful in our everyday lives — it allows us to focus on information relevant to the task at hand — it can impede the “out of the box” type of thinking needed when creative solutions are called for.
It stands to reason that this system performs less efficiently during the time of day when we’re less alert and sharp. This allows more random thoughts to intrude on our decision-making process, resulting in more creative thinking. At least, that’s the researchers’ hypothesis.
“Previous research has shown that students tend to get higher grades when classes are in synch with their circadian arousal,” Wieth and Zacks note. While that might be true for most subjects, “[t]his suggests that students designing their class schedules might perform best in classes such as art and creative writing” that take place at their nonpeak time of day.
So if you’re facing a vexing problem that can’t be solved by simple logic, resist the temptation to put it aside until you’re feeling more alert. It seems a slightly fatigued brain can produce surprising insights.