If you find yourself feeling a bit more creative at night when you’re tired, you can thank your circadian rhythm.
There’s a lot more to it than that, but let’s start there, with your sleep/awake cycle.
Due to cultural norms: the majority of us follow a routine that has us up with the sun and asleep with the moon. We wake up, go to work or school or the kitchen, and get on with our daily routine. Then comes “quitting time,” where we conduct our regular behavior to prepare for bed and (with any luck) sleep.
It’s a routine that has gone on for hundreds of years and influenced how different regions of our brain act during various hours of the day as a result.
One specific area of the brain that starts to get a little finicky as we get tired is the frontal cortex.
This part of the brain is one from a group of regions responsible for things like attention, planning, rewards, and (most importantly for this article) working memory.
What’s working memory? It’s the system where data (in the form of input from your senses) is brought into the brain, interpreted, and sorted accordingly. Everything you hear, see, taste, smell, and touch goes through the frontal lobe and is processed and sorted based on a lot of various criteria.
When you start to get tired – say, just before bedtime, late at night – that’s the result of your body producing chemicals that block dopamine receptors in your brain. Chemicals like adenosine, which interact with the central nervous system and offset dopamine’s reward/energetic signal, are produced throughout the day to interact with the dopamine receptors and producers. The result? A feeling of exhaustion or simply a lack of energy.
Your frontal cortex happens to be a major dopamine hub. In-fact: it’s the hub for processing dopamine.1
So, as a result of burning through all of your energy during the day and having your body produce just the right amount of chemicals to tell your brain: “Hey, running low on energy here, why not get some sleep?” your frontal cortex starts to lose steam. It doesn’t shut-down completely, but it definitely isn’t involved in processing everything going on around you.
Without the frontal cortex to continuously focus on new, incoming information from the world around you, other parts of the brain (the ones that still have a little bit of energy left in them) are free to run like normal and generally wreak metaphorical havoc.
Exhaustion, it appears, can spur creativity because, frankly, you just don’t give a damn.
Instead of worrying about perfecting whatever it is you’re working on (that novel you’ve been slowly tinkering with or the big presentation for tomorrow at work) your brain ends up running wild, accepting ideas and paths of thinking that might otherwise be stopped in your frontal lobe and stamped with a big “not ideal” mark.
An important email comes your way while you’re in the middle of painting or playing an instrument or brainstorming cool names for your business? Doesn’t matter, the frontal lobe has checked out (so to speak).
Of course: this response takes place at night typically because that’s when you’ve trained your body to be tired.
There are still people out there who aren’t more creative at night (and likely not tired at night, or even the type of person who sleeps at night), so it’s important to remember this vital tidbit of wisdom: your creative response at night has nothing to do with the time of day, but everything to do with your energy cycle.
You get tired at night? Your frontal lobe is missing some vital energy signals, and therefore you’re going to end up being slightly more creative than regular.
Not surprisingly: the same creative response your brain has to getting tired is the exact same as when you drink alcohol.
Alcohol inhibits the frontal cortex, almost identically to how pure exhaustion does. If you want to reproduce the effect of exhaustion on your creativity all you need to do is have a few drinks.
Not too many, of course, because the more you drink the less other critical thinking functions have to keep going. The trick is to drink just the right amount of alcohol.
How much is just right? That depends on your body, but typically two beers is a good starting point.
Not into drinking? Fret none: just work on getting yourself worn down during the day and by the time night rolls around, open up your work and see if any creative ideas come about.
Or, according to additional research, you can produce similar affects by just being bored and letting your mind wander.
Now, while exhaustion and drinking (and general boredom) are all great for creativity, it’s important to note that – because they’re blocking your working memory and your brain’s ability to sort through lots of various information – both should be avoided when it comes to crunch time (or operating heavy machinery, or driving, or doing anything that requires analytical thinking).
Of course, if you want the reverse effect of all that exhaustion or drinking: have a cup or two of coffee.
Source: 1. “Neuromodulation of thought: flexibilities and vulnerabilities in prefrontal cortical network synapses.” Arnsten AF, Wang MJ, Paspalas CD
It should go without saying: I do not condone irresponsible, illegal, or underage drinking. Don’t be stupid in an attempt to be creative.