January 31, 2012

# Writing and Exhaustion

Hi! Are you reading this post at your desk on a bleary workday morning? Excellent. Let’s do a couple brain teasers.

Water lilies double in area every 24 hours. At the beginning of the summer there is one water lily on a lake. It takes 60 days for the lake to become completely covered with water lilies. On what day is the lake half covered?

Now try this one.

Bob's father is 3 times as old as Bob. They were both born in October. 4 years ago, he was 4 times older. How old are Bob and his father?

All done? I gave up on the first one after a few minutes and barely finished reading the second before a crushing wave of math class memories forced me to look away.

But the difference between you and me is that it’s 7:22 p.m. as I write this. Your very fatigue might have helped you solve the puzzles—or the first one, at least. So say Mareike B. Wieth and Rose T. Zacks in their study, “Time of Day Effects on Problem Solving: When the Non-Optimal is Optimal” (with thanks to James Plafke at geekosystem for putting it in plain English).

Before we get to their thesis, let's take another look at those logic problems. See, they represent two kinds of thought: insight and analysis. While the process of solving the second problem is purely methodical, the first requires you to think creatively. Focus too hard on the water lilies and they just multiply eternally, Creepshow-style. But take a step back, consider them from another POV, and the answer appears. (Or so I gather; at 7:56, I still haven’t solved it.) It's just a matter of thinking around an apparent dead-end.

According to the study, our minds have inhibitory processes that filter out distracting thoughts. This is good for analytical problem solving, but potentially bad for outside-the-box thinking. Furthermore, these processes don't really kick in till we're fully awake and alert. ERGO, for creative nightowls, it’s possible to catch our minds off-guard, before they start blocking fresh ideas. All we've got to do is drag ourselves to our desks, first thing in the morning.

Hence Wieth and Zacks’ conclusion: “Tasks involving creativity might benefit from a non-optimal time of day.”

To those of us who consider ourselves creative—and who greet each morning like arthritic, hungover vampires—this is big news. Is it possible that all those late-night writing sessions were “non-optimal,” that we can access more of our creative energies by working at the apex of crankiness?

It sounds crazy, and I don’t think I’m willing to experiment on myself. But Jesus! If this is true, shouldn’t all MFA programs adopt mandatory sunrise study halls? I already feel like suing my grad school for, well, snoozing on this one. Because right now, on the stroke of nine, I can’t think of a world more crammed with dead ends than that of creative writing.

Image: Stu Horvath / ang-enuity.blogspot.com