According to new studies out of Albion College and University of Illinois at Chicago, intense focus might be getting in the way of deep insight. Subjects were sleep deprived, intoxicated, quizzed and studied to provide some interesting conclusions about the benefits of losing concentration and letting seemingly irrelevant signals take over the brain.
The creative upside of brain damage — the unexpected benefits of not being able to focus — does reveal something important about the imagination. Sometimes, it helps to consider irrelevant information, to eavesdrop on all the stray associations unfolding in the far reaches of the brain. We are more likely to find the answer because we have less control over where we look.
In the Albion College study led by Mareike Wieth, 428 undergrads were surveyed about their sleeping patterns and the time of day they believed they were most efficient. Then they were given questions that demanded creative solutions.
When people were tested during their “least optimal time of day” — think of that night owl stumbling into the lab in the early morning — they were significantly more effective at solving insight puzzles. (On one problem, their performance increased by nearly 50 percent.) Performance on the analytic problems, meanwhile, was unaffected by the clock.
The larger lesson is that those sleepy students, like a brain-damaged patient, benefit from the inability to focus. Their minds are drowsy and disorganized, humming with associations that they’d normally ignore. When we need an insight, of course, those stray associations are the source of the answer.
A brand-new study by scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago compared performance on insight puzzles between sober and drunk students. (They were aiming for real intoxication, giving students enough booze to achieve a blood alcohol level of 0.075.) Once the students achieved “peak intoxication” the scientists gave them a battery of word problems
Drunk students solved more of these word problems in less time. They also were much more likely to perceive their solutions as the result of a sudden insight. And the differences were dramatic: The alcohol made subjects nearly 30 percent more likely to find the unexpected solution.
This isn’t to say you should deprive yourself of sleep then pre-game your next critical exam or meeting. Rather, it points to the nature of creative solutions existing outside of structured and ordered systems. It’s an old method to find hidden answers by taking breaks, going on walks, or relaxing the mind. It seems sleep deprivation and intoxication can lead to similar ends.