Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal

By its own nature, we can separate two different kind of problems: insight problems and analytic problems.

Insight problems are often solved suddenly with a “flash of illuminance”, or what has also been called an “Aha” experience where the solution seems to just pop into mind. To solve an insight problem, people typically start on a given path, hit a wall, and then jump to a different path. To move past the impasse, the solver must break away from his or her focus on the current representation of the problem and find an alternative way of structuring the problem space. This re-conceptualisation is often the key to solving an insight problem.

In contrast, analytic problems require the solver to “grind out the solution” by searching through and narrowing the problem space. You start on a path and stay on that path until you find the solution; no restructuring of the problem space is usually necessary.

Time of day effects occur in many physiological and cognitive areas; for instance, there is a relationship between time of day and inhibitory attentional processes. A specific function of inhibition is to suppress the processing of distracting information to maintain consciousness or working memory relatively free of task-irrelevant or no-longer-relevant information. Therefore, a morning person has the inhibition system very active in the morning, just the opposite as an evening person.

Insight-based problem-solving requires a broad, unfocused approach. You’re more likely to achieve that Aha! revelatory moment when your inhibitory brain processes are at their weakest and your thoughts are meandering.

As non-optimal time of day is associated with reduced inhibitory attentional control, then imaginative insights are most likely to come to us when we’re groggy and unfocused. The mental processes that inhibit distracting or irrelevant thoughts are at their weakest in these moments, allowing unexpected and sometimes inspired connections to be made.

Summing-up: If you are an evening person, then early in the day, when you’re bleary eyed, stumbling about in the fog of sleepiness, you’re probably at your creative peak. In contrast, if you’re a morning person, then for you, the evening is the best time for musing.


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