Albion Professor Examines Optimal Time for Creativity

Individuals can spend a lifetime trying to understand why it's so easy to complete a crossword puzzle one day, and a struggle to figure out a single clue the next.

According to a study co-authored by Albion College psychological sciences professor Mareike Wieth and recently published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning, the answer could be as simple as the time of day the individual is working on that puzzle.

The optimal time to complete creative tasks, it turns out, runs opposite to the belief that it's best to tackle the problem when you're well rested. Therefore, the best time for a "morning person" to sit down with that puzzle is in the afternoon, while "night owls" do their best creative thinking in the morning.

"People intuitively know there are certain times of the day when they are better at certain tasks, but I've always wanted to test that," Wieth said.

Wieth and Rose Zacks of Michigan State University assigned 428 students a standard questionnaire featuring such questions as, "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 on a five-point scale ranging from an extreme morning lark to neutral to an extreme night owl. They were then randomly assigned to an 8:30 a.m. or 4 p.m. testing session.

During the session, students 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 those generally entails reaching a dead end before going back and reconsidering initial assumptions.

The researchers believe it's easier to complete insight problems at non-optimal times of day because the process in the brain that suppresses distracting information shifts, allowing for more creative thought.

A matter of patience and persistence
Collecting and analyzing the data and writing the first draft of the paper took a significant amount of time, but that was nothing compared to the journey of getting the work published in a scholarly journal. Wieth collected data in 2005, analysis was completed in 2006 and conference presentations were made as early as 2007. Thinking & Reasoning, in fact, was not the original journal to receive the paper.

"Getting a paper published, especially in cognitive psychology, takes a long, long time, and this is a great example," Wieth said. "They liked [the paper] the first time we submitted it to a journal, but it took nine months for us to receive comments. We worked on the revision and it took another six months to get the comments back on that. We worked on those revisions and the editor's term was coming to an end.

"I liked the project and I was convinced it was interesting," Wieth added. "That's why I kept sticking with it."

While Wieth was sold on the importance of her work, she has been surprised with the coverage it has gained through Time and Men's Health magazines and the BBC World Service, among others.

"I knew it was something neat but as an academic you don't expect the popular press to pick up on it," Wieth said. "It's a validation."

Avenues for future research
While she reports it is hard to find morning people among the college-age population, Wieth is looking ahead to the 2012-13 academic year to investigate the correlation between the time of day when students schedule creative courses like music and art and the grades they receive.

"This suggests that students designing their class schedules might perform best in classes such as art and creative writing during their non-optimal compared to optimal time of day," the authors wrote in the discussion of the paper.