I have many crackpot theories. Today is no exception. Let’s test today’s theory, unscientifically.
First, think of someone you know who is unusually creative. It should be someone who almost can’t stop creating, whether that involves painting, sculpting, starting new businesses, rebuilding cars, whatever. But don’t count knitting or anything that involves following directions. I’m only talking about creating from original ideas. Pick someone for whom the need to invent something new as often as possible almost defines the person. Okay? Now hold that thought.
Second, think of your best friend who does NOT have a creative streak and is about the same age as the creative person you chose. Okay, do you have both people in mind?
Which one has more body fat?
My prediction is that the creative person is usually thinner than the non-creative person.
My theory is that when your body experiences the early stages of hunger, you become more creative, and more energetic. (Obviously at the later stages of hunger you become sleepy, cranky, distracted, and probably less creative. Let’s call that starvation and not hunger.)
This makes sense from an evolutionary view. As soon as you feel hunger coming on, your body is designed to put you into your most creative and energetic mode for the purpose of hunting and gathering. If you can’t outrun your prey, you have to outthink it. And if there are no bananas in your usual tree, you’d better have a creative idea where to look next. It makes sense that the onset of hunger would stimulate your brain to its highest operating level.
I came to this theory after two decades of watching how my own diet influences my energy and personality. One pattern is remarkably clear: My creativity and energy are highest when I haven’t eaten much lately. Is that a coincidence?
The highest period of creativity in my life coincided with the period in which I became a vegetarian and felt hungry all the time no matter how many carrots I ate. I joked about it at the time, but there was a very real sense of clarity that coincided with my change of diet. It was as if a fog lifted. That was the period in which I created Dilbert, along with about five other business ventures. (The other ones suffered from, um, poor timing.)
During those same years, I discovered that my most creative time was in the morning. I assumed it had something to do with alleged circadian rhythms, coffee consumption, the proximity to REM sleep, or the fact that there were fewer distractions. By the afternoon, I was lucky if I had enough brainpower left to operate my car. My new theory is that I have very little food in my stomach during the morning, and the onset of hunger is spiking my creative energy. I’m in hunter/gather mode. Then I eat lunch, and it’s nap time.
Often, from about 8 PM until noon the next day, I eat no more than one banana and a protein bar. That’s about 356 calories, or around 18% of my daily allocation spread over two-thirds of the day. I’m almost always a little bit hungry during that 16-hour period, but for reasons of health, energy, and productivity, I usually resist eating more. And when I absolutely have to eat, I eat peanuts. They don’t give me the foggy headed need-a-nap feeling that carbs generally do.
There are days when I experience floods of creativity that are almost overwhelming. I noticed recently that those times coincide with periods in which when I’m trying to lose a few pounds to get back to my target weight.
By now you’ve probably seen the CNN story about the nutritionist who lost 27 pounds and became generally healthier by eating mostly junk food, but limiting his calories. We don’t know if it raised his risk of cancer in the long run, so no expert is recommending his diet. But it calls into question how much we really know about the link between food and health.
On a final note, have you ever wondered why famous musicians write their best songs when they are young? Maybe it’s because young brains are more creative and less cluttered, or because they are more tapped into the youth culture, or maybe it’s because they are doing more drugs. But maybe it’s also because young musicians don’t eat as much as their bodies require. Musicians tend to look underfed during their most creative years. Maybe it’s not a coincidence.
I remind you not to get your health and nutrition advice from cartoonists. But I’m curious if your own creative moments have coincided with low caloric intake.