Mental Exhaustion Boosts Creativity, So If You're Out Of Ideas, Trying Tiring Yourself Out

I often surprise myself with a burst of inspiration late at night or even during the wee hours of the morning, when I produce some of my best work. I've always chalked this up to being a "night owl," but new research from University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis in France might suggest another reason: Mental exhaustion leads to creativity. The study's authors hypothesized that when we are mentally drained, novel ideas pop out through cracks in the self-control we usually exert over our thoughts.

To test this hypothesis, the researchers first tired participants out by asking them to identify the direction in which an arrow pointed when it was surrounded by a bunch of arrows pointing in the opposite direction half the time and in the same direction during the other half of the trials. A control group had arrows all pointing in the same direction 90 percent of the time so the study could compare people who were and were not mentally exhausted. Then, they measured subjects' creativity through two tests: one that asked them to brainstorm uncommon uses for everyday objects like paperclips and shoes, and one that flashed real words like "tiger" followed by fake ones like "loni" across a screen (yes, "loni" — identifying "lion" demonstrates the ability to connect related ideas).

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People who were mentally drained from the arrow exercise came up with more ideas for using everyday objects — one even came up with the idea to make a compass out of a paperclip and a cork — and were more likely to pick up on the hidden meanings of the gibberish words.

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A few previous studies confirm the hypothesis that the uninhibited state of the tired participants' minds produced their creativity, Scientific American's Madhuvanthi Kannan points out. Participants with damage to the pre-frontal cortex, often known as the seat of self-control, have developed sudden artistic abilities. And MRI scans have revealed that jazz pianists' brains display higher levels of inhibition when they're playing from memory than when they're improvising (yup, they fit a piano inside an MRI scanner).

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This cat is very uninhibited.

Perhaps lack of inhibition also might explain the link between creativity and regular exercise. After all, there's not much room to exert control over your thoughts when you're busy controlling your arms and legs. And running sounds like a healthier way to boost creativity than working late.

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This dog is depleting its self-control.

So, should employers now feel free to overwork their employees? Hardly. The creativity that may arise from mental exhaustion is a silver lining amid many negative effects of long work hours. People who work over 40 hours a week are far less productive, less happy, and even more likely to play sick. So, this is one of those studies I'm not really sure what to take from. Maybe, if you happen to be overworked, you have a golden opportunity to produce something brilliant — but you'll find me taking a nap instead.Images: congalaconga/Flickr; Giphy (4)