Wednesday, famed sportswriter Bill Simmons released a podcast where he interviewed Lorne Michaels, the man who created and still runs Saturday Night Live. In the interview, Michaels said something particularly interesting about the creative process.
Simmons asked him about the grueling nature of SNL, where Michaels and his staff have been putting on a live hour of television each week for the past 40 years. Specifically, Simmons asked if that sort of schedule was too difficult, if there would be a benefit to cutting back.
Michaels’ answer: no.
“There’s a mantra that I have, which is fatigue is your friend,” Michaels said. “There’s a point at which, in anything artistic, at least from my perspective, the critical faculty can overwhelm the creative faculty… When you’re tired, you just write it, and all sorts of different kinds of work comes out.”
Michaels, who developed talent like Will Ferrell, Chris Farley, Eddie Murphy and hundreds of others, went on to say that when creative types are tired, they lose their filter. And then, “someone takes a chance that they would never, if they were cautious or they were smart, would have ever attempted.”
“And those kinds of things are what you remember now as hits,” he continued.
“That’s so funny you talk about that because that’s how I usually write my column,” Simmons told Michaels. “I either do it early in the morning or late at night because I don’t want to be fully awake. As weird as that sounds, I take more chances when I’m groggy.”
Does this phenomenon make any sense? Well, believe it or not, science says yes.
What The Science Says
There have been several scientific studies into the exact issue Simmons and Michaels talked about. And while there are some splits in the findings, the majority say that, indeed, sleep deprivation can actually increase creativity.
One study by Mareike Wieth at Albion College probed into this issue by giving people problems to answer at their non-optimal time of the day; i.e. times when they were tired (morning people were given problems in the evening and evening people were given problems in the morning).
What Wieth found was that people answered math questions better when they were well-rested. However, for problems that required more creative thinking, the people who were more tired did better.
“The findings indicate that tasks involving creativity might benefit from a non-optimal time of day,” Wieth wrote in her study.
Additionally, Italian researcher Marcello Massimini found that the brain becomes more sensitive throughout the day, as it continues to form new synapses for as long as you stay awake. When you finally sleep, those synapses are pruned down.
Therefore, it makes sense that basic math problems become more difficult to solve when you’re tired, because you are, quite literally, more scatterbrained. But it also means that the longer you stay awake, the more unique connections begin to form in your brain – a recipe for creative thinking.
By no means should you adopt a lifestyle of little-to-no sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation leads to higher blood pressure, obesity and an increased chance of stroke, among other things.
Engineers or scientists wouldn’t benefit from sleep deprivation either, as it essentially inhibits logical thinking. But, for the creative type who needs to get something out, an all-nighter might just do the trick.
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