When I was younger, I always wondered what it would be like to be an adult. Now that the law says I am one, I’ve discovered that being an adult mostly means being tired all of the time.
Exhaustion used to be something that happened after convincing all of your friends to pull an all-nighter at a slumber party. Now it’s simply an inevitable symptom of being conscious. This all sounds very negative, and perhaps it is. But there is a silver lining here: According to a credible source called science, sleepiness can actually lead to creative breakthroughs and imaginative epiphanies.
Tiredness is often associated with the inability to produce quality work or accomplish goals efficiently. However, a 2011 study published in Thinking & Reasoning that sought to examine the effects of time of day on problem solving discovered that exhaustion could lead to a certain kind of critical thinking.
For the study, researchers divided 223 university students into groups according to their self-distinction of “morning people” or “evening people”. Researchers then assigned them both analytic and insight problems to solve within a time constraint. In this context, analytic referred to problems you might see on standardized test, which require sharp logic and acute focus (think math questions on an SAT). Insight problems required creative and intellectual thinking (think: riddles).
Participants were given both types of questions at their optimal time of day, as well their non-optimal time of day. The results showed that most were able to come up with the answers to the insight problems at their non-optimal time of day. Meaning: they were better able to think creatively when they were tired and unfocused.
On his website Creative Something, creativity expert Tanner Christensen explained why the link between exhaustion and non-linear thinking makes complete sense. We’re more or less conditioned to a 9-to-5 schedule, he explains, which has conditioned our brain to stop focusing at the end of the day. When we start to wind down and lose focus, it’s because the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for tasks like planning and working memory, has slowed. So, as exhaustion sets in, our bodies produce block dopamine receptors. Since the frontal cortex happens to be the main dopamine hub, its functions slow down.
Without the frontal cortex helping you stay focused, your brain is free to wander down more imaginative paths. Think about the moments before you fall asleep, when you (hopefully) stop thinking about all of the things you need to do and begin to drift towards a dream state. You’re not quite unconscious yet, but your brain has started to roam free in a hypnagogic state, leading into thoughts that are more absurd and less linear. The cause? Your frontal cortex has lost speed, and other areas of the brain are taking over.
This may explain why so many creative types develop non-traditional sleeping patterns and find themselves doing their best work in the later hours. It doesn’t, however, necessarily mean that lack of sleep in order to link more freely you have to be sleep deprived. It simply means that that state of mind is a bit more conducive to creative thoughts.
And exhaustion, of course, is merely one way to arrive at this state of mind. Meditation, for example, teaches people to turn off certain parts of their brain in order to relax and think more clearly. In fact, Brooklyn based photographer Travis Chantar spoke about he uses the practice to help incubate creative ideas. “In my artistic process, I actively relieve my conscious mind from doing the heavy lifting,” he said. “I remove all judgment and let my subconscious come up with ideas.”
Basically, he’s able to turn off the part of his brain that thinks analytically, and enter a state of the subconscious where creative thoughts flourish.
So, while science points to a clear correlation between exhaustion and creativity, there are alternative practices one can use for coming up with ideas.
But for those of us who are constantly tired, exhaustion can be a convenient tool for accessing creativity. Next time someone makes a snarky comment about how tired you look, say it’s part of your artistic process, and you’ve got the science to prove it. Then maybe go take a nap.