Burning the midnight oil and creativity

May 052016
Tamara Kaye Sellman, RPSGT, CCSH

circadian rhythms

Are you a creative person? And if so, do you tend to stay up later than most other people in your household? 

A link between staying up late—"to burn the midnight oil," as the cliché goes—and creativity has been found by researchers testing the behavioral patterns of people characterized by a certain kind of chronotype.

People who prefer to stay up late, or who find they are more energized in the evening, or simply do their best work at night, have been shown to follow a biological rhythm referred to as eveningness (as opposed to their so-called "morning lark" companions, who practice the rhythms of morningness).

There seems to be a difference between both chronotypes when it comes to creativity. Let's take a look at why our resident "night owls"—another cliché—seem to be best suited for late-night living. 

While we're at it, let's consider whether staying up late always points to the presence of circadian rhythm sleep disorders.


What is a night owl?

William Shakespeare used the term "night owl," not literally, but in reference to people who were up late at night, in three different works around the turn of the 16th century.

It seems that some of us were already staying up well past midnight even before Edison invented the light bulb in 1879.

As previously discussed in this blog, the preference for late-night activity and sleeping in was coined eveningnessby famous sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman in the mid-20th century.

This followed efforts by numerous researchers since the years prior to Edison's world-altering discovery to catalog circadian rhythms into what we now understand as chronotypes. 

It wasn't until 2007 that researchers started to seriously examine certain personality characteristics, like creativity, in conjunction with these chronotypes.  


Research on late-night creativity

An Italian landmark study published in 2007 on creativity and eveningness showed a correlation between the "night owl" disposition and an elevated ability to apply "divergent thinking strategies" to visual content and to solve problems using intuition. 

This followed more than 2 decades of research into evening disposition, which found, among other things, that: 

Creativity = problem solving

This is what creativity is, after all. We may conjure images of painters, authors, poets, or sculptors when we think of creativity, but many other occupations demand regular applications of creative thinking:

So take heart! You don't have to be the next van Gogh to be creative.  

If you prefer to be "in tune with the moon," do you have a sleep disorder?

It all depends.

If you are sleeping an adequate number of hours every night and don't have problems with insomnia or other sleep disorders... 

...and you aren't impaired by morning routines and schedules imposed upon you, then you're probably a natural night owl. 

Often, eveningness runs in families; if your parents were late nighters and slept in on weekends, it's likely you will be, too. 

However, if you cannot abide the demands of morning schedules you are obligated to (for family, school, or work), and you are losing enough sleep to threaten your health and well being because of it, that is a different story.


Delayed sleep phase syndrome (DSPS) describes the situation where your rhythms don't mesh with the time commitments you must keep during the day. Teenagers are most famously delayed in their sleep phasing because of developmental changes that reset their biological rhythms later.

Most of us grow out of it, but there are still adults of all ages who can't fall asleep before 1 am. 

If you are one of them, and you are being to feel the impact of sleep debt as a result, then you are likely suffering from delayed sleep phase disorder (DSPD). This is a real sleep disorder with disastrous consequences that include a mounting sleep debt; it requires treatments that can include blue light therapy and cognitive behavior therapy to force a circadian reset. 

The dark side of life after midnight

Though recent research gives glowing praise for night owls when it comes to creativity, night owls have also been found to have their fair share of shortcomings. They:

Still, the future looks bright for night owls. The working world is beginning to acknowledge that its workers need sleep, so they are incorporating more flex time and encouraging telecommuting and remote offices to accommodate those who don't fit the 9-to-5 mold. 


In major urban centers, later lifestyles are already the norm. Coffeehouses, nightclubs, bookstores, and other venues that cater to creatives have long kept their doors open to their late-night clientele.

There's less reason to feel guilty about one's late-night tendencies in the 21st century. Just make sure you get your solid 8 hours of sleep at night. If you aren't, consult a sleep specialist.


"Circadian Typology and style of thinking differences." Fabbri M, et al. Learning and Individual Differences, 2007
In Sync with Adolescence: The Role of Morningness-Eveningness in Development, ©2007, AK Andershed
"Interacting features of cognitive style (field dependence-independence) and operator's simulated work during a 24-hour cycle—II:
     morning and evening type." Sarmány I. Studia Psychologica,1984
Journal of Environmental Psychology
"Morning and evening types and creative thinking." Giampietro M, & Cavallera GM. Personality and Individual Differences, 2007
"Relationships between morningness–eveningness and personality styles." Morales JFD& García MA, Anales de Psicología, 2003
Thinking & Reasoning

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