A bus company in China has launched a new “safe driving” campaign by suspending bowls of water over their drivers.  To avoid getting wet, drivers must drive gently.  In today’s technology-obsessed world, this solution is elegantly primitive.  You might imagine that this simple yet ingenious idea was conjured by someone functioning at their very best, that such “aha insights” come when innovators are at their peak. 

Not so.  A recent study by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks suggests that innovation and creativity are greatest when we are not at our best, at least with respect to our circadian rhythms.  Circadian rhythms determine whether you are a “morning-type” person or an “evening-type” person, and are often measured with a short paper-and-pencil test called the Morningness-Eveningness Questionnaire. Circadian rhythms drive daily fluctuations in many physiological processes like alertness, heart rate and body temperature.  Recent research indicates that these rhythms affect our intellectual functioning too.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that our best performance on challenging, attention-demanding tasks - like studying in the midst of distraction - occurs at our peak time of day.  When we operate at our optimal time of day, we filter out the distractions in our world and get down to business.

In a study I conducted, for example, participants were given three related cue words (e.g., SHIP OUTER CRAWL), and were required to find their common link (SPACE).  When misleading distractors were presented with the cue words (e.g., SHIP-ocean  OUTER-inner  CRAWL-baby), those tested at non-optimal times were more likely to be misled by the distractors and showed lower solution rates.  Those tested at peak times were not affected by the distraction.  In this and related studies, peak-time benefits are most robust when distraction would disrupt our thought processes and cause errors. 

But distraction is not all bad, and Wieth and Zacks have demonstrated that we can use our increased susceptibility to distraction at off-peak times to our advantage.  In their study, they asked participants to solve analytic problems and insight problems at peak or off-peak times.  Analytic problems generally require people to “grind out a solution” by systematically working through the problem utilizing a consistent strategy.  Here is a classic analytic problem: “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?”  No innovation or creativity necessary to solve this problem; one simply has to work it out mathematically.

Insight problems, on the other hand, often initially mislead the solver.  Finding the right answer requires the solver to abandon the original interpretation and seek alternatives.  Insight problems often involve an “Aha!” moment where the answer comes all at once, rather than via a systematic, incremental calculation.  Here is a classic insight problem: “A dealer in antique coins got an offer to buy a beautiful bronze coin.  The coin had an emperor’s head on one side and the date 544 BC stamped on the other.  The dealer examined the coin, but instead of buying it, he called the police.  Why?” 

Insight problems involve thinking outside the box.  This is where susceptibility to “distraction” can be of benefit.  At off-peak times we are less focused, and may consider a broader range of information.  This wider scope gives us access to more alternatives and diverse interpretations, thus fostering innovation and insight.  Indeed, Wieth and Zacks found that participants were more successful in solving insight problems when tested at their non-optimal times.

Other studies show similar results.  Consider the task of finding the common link among three cue words (SHIP OUTER CRAWL).  If the distraction presented alongside those cue words is not misleading (SHIP-ocean OUT-inner CRAWL-baby), but instead is helpful (e.g., SHIP-rocket  OUTER-atmosphere  CRAWL-attic), participants tested at off-peak times benefit from that distraction and solve more problems.  Those tested at peak times do not solve more problems with helpful distraction, presumably because they filter out all distraction, even when it might be beneficial.

Thus, being at your best may be over-rated, at least for people seeking innovative ideas or creative solutions.  To be sure, if your task requires strong focus and careful concentration - like balancing spreadsheets or reading a textbook - you are better off scheduling that task for your peak time of day.  However, if you need to open your mind to alternative approaches and consider diverse options, it may be wise to do so when your filter is not so functional.  You just may be able to see what you’ve been missing.

In case you are reading this article at your peak time and are struggling with your “aha moment,” coins were never dated BC because no one knew when (or if) Christ was coming.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.