Writing and the Creative Life: Why creativity thrives in the dark

Back in 2009, I was up working in the middle of the night, as I always do, when I was inspired to write this reflection:

Is there anything more profoundly intense than pounding out pages…
Yanked from that story universe you've created…
Then in the thick silence of night's deep darkness…
Read aloud what you've written?
Not much above a whisper…
Don't want to wake all the 'normal' people in the household.
Just you…
Your story…
And the blackness enveloping the both of you…
A silent witness to the magic of the muses you've managed to wrangle.

As long as I can remember, I have been a night person. That’s generally when I do my best creative thinking. I’ve often wondered why. As it turns out, perhaps it’s nothing more than light… and darkness.

This week, Fast Company published an article (“Why Creativity Thrives in the Dark”) that explores this subject:

Psychologists Anna Steidel and Lioba Werth recently conducted a series of clever experiments designed to measure how creativity responded to various lighting schemes. In a paper published last month, Steidel and Werth reported some of the first evidence for what creative masters know by nature: when the lights switch off, something in the brain switches on.

“Apparently, darkness triggers a chain of interrelated processes, including a cognitive processing style, which is beneficial to creativity,” the researchers concluded in the September issue of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

—-

In a subsequent experiment, Steidel and Werth arranged a simulated office environment with three different lighting conditions. Some of the 114 study participants in this test sat at cubicle with a desk light of 500 lux, which is the workplace standard. Others sat at a spot with a bright light of 1,500 lux, a setting often used by TV studios. A third group had a dim light of 150 lux, similar to a very cloudy day.

At their stations, study participants worked on four classic insight problems that require some creativity to solve. (The “candle problem,” for instance, asks people to put a candle on a wall using just a box of tacks; the solution requires realizing the box can be tacked to the wall.) People at the dim workspaces solved significantly more problems than those at the bright cubicles.

So what’s the secret of dim lighting? Steidel and Werth suspect that it creates a “visual message” capable of nudging our minds into an exploratory mode. The idea is that dark places suggest an uninhibited freedom that loosens our thoughts.

Finally I know why I prefer to live like a mole! Curtains closed during the day. A single lamp with a dim bulb on in my study at night. The shadows are my friends! The night welcomes me like a warm blanket, encouraging my creativity to emerge from hibernation, from darkness to darkness… and to the light of imagination.

I’m not a vampire yearning to sink my fangs into some virgin’s throat. I’m a writer yearning to sink my creativity into a virginal story! Yes, a creature of the night… but maybe more accurately, a creature of little light. As I wrote in that reflection years ago:

Truth be told, I'm more of a monk.
Communing with the Creative in the deepest darkness…
The most still stillness…
Where the people of 'this' world…
Give way to the souls of the 'story' world…
No folks around to spook my characters.

And so it's midnight.
No calls.
No appointments.
Just me…
And slinky shadows.

C'mon, souls!
There's nobody around to chase you away.

Let's you and me chat for awhile…

For the rest of the Fast Company article, go here.

Writing and the Creative Life is a weekly series in which we explore creativity from the practical to the psychological, the latest in brain science to a spiritual take on the subject. Hopefully the more we understand about our creative self, the better we will become as writers. If you have any good reading material in this vein, please post in comments. If you have a particular observation you think readers will benefit from and you would like to explore in a guest post, email me.

[Originally posted November 7, 2013]

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