Brrriiinnng. The alarm clock buzzes in another hectic weekday morning. You leap out of bed, rush into the shower, into your clothes and out the door with barely a moment to think. A stressful commute gets your blood pressure climbing. Once at the office, you glance through the newspaper, its array of stories ranging from discouraging to depressing to tragic. With a sigh, you pour yourself a cup of coffee and get down to work, ready to do some creative, original problem solving.
Good luck with that.
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As several recent studies highlight, the way most of us spend our mornings is exactly counter to the conditions that neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists tell us promote flexible, open-minded thinking. Take that hurried wake-up, for example. In a study published in the journal Thinking and Reasoning last year, researchers Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks reported that 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. Sleepy people’s “more diffuse attentional focus,” they write, leads them to “widen their search through their knowledge network. This widening leads to an increase in creative problem solving.” By not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you’re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer. (If you happen to be one of those perky morning people, your most inventive time comes when you’re winding down in the early evening.)
Your commute filled with honking cars or sharp-elbowed fellow passengers doesn’t help, either. The stress hormone cortisol can harm myelin, the fatty substance that coats our brain cells. Damage to these myelin sheaths slows down the speed with which signals are transmitted between neurons, making lightning-quick “Eureka!” moments less likely. And while we all should read up on what’s going on in the world, it may be better to put that news website or newspaper aside until after the day’s work is done. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that subjects who watched brief video clips that made them feel sad were less able to solve problems creatively than people who watched an upbeat video. A positive mood, wrote researcher Ruby Nadler and her co-authors, increases “cognitive flexibility,” while a negative mood narrows our mental horizons. The segment that made participants feel worst of all? A news report about an earthquake.
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The only thing most of us do right in the morning, in fact, is drink coffee. Caffeine not only makes us more alert, as we all know — it also increases the brain’s level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter that influences feelings of motivation and reward when we hit on a great idea. (Nicotine does this too, but I can’t in good conscience recommend an a.m. cigarette.)
So what would our mornings look like if we re-engineered them in the interest of maximizing our creative-problem-solving capacities? We’d set the alarm a few minutes early and lie awake in bed, following our thoughts where they lead (with a pen and paper nearby to jot down any evanescent inspirations). We’d stand a little longer under the warm water of the shower, dismissing task-oriented thoughts (“What will I say at that 9 a.m. meeting?”) in favor of a few more minutes of mental dilation. We’d take some deep breaths during our commute instead of succumbing to road rage. And once in the office — after we get that cup of coffee — we’d direct our computer browser not to the news of the day but to the funniest videos the Web has to offer.
For decades, psychologists have manipulated the emotions of subjects in the lab by showing them short film clips. But now there’s YouTube — and, in fact, the clip that made the participants in Ruby Nadler’s study happiest of all was a YouTube video of a laughing baby. Laughing babies and a double latte: now that’s a way to start the day.