The Science Behind Why You Get a Million Ideas in the Middle of the Night

August 26, 2022

Have you ever woken up early in the morning and felt like you had a non-stop flow of ideas?

It’s like the idea flood gates have held all night long just waiting for you to get up so they can open.

Being a parent of young kids will really open your eyes to this phenomenon. I can’t count the number of times I’ve woken up to feed one of our kids, usually sometime between 3 am and 5 am, and only to be bombarded with ideas.

I’m sure there’s probably a timestamp somewhere on my notes app, and if you looked at mine you would see that most of the notes in my “Ideas” category were created in the middle of the night.

Why is that?

Well, science may give us a clue. Apparently, it may have something to do with how active our prefrontal cortex is early in the morning.

For all of you non-neuroscience-types, the prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that helps engage in complex problem solving and reasoning and is also a part of what Harvard University’s Dr. Randy Buckner and colleagues refer to as your brain’s “Default Network”, or as Scientific America calls it, your “imagination network”.

Science has suggested that the prefrontal cortex (and the “Imagination Network” it’s a part of) is most active just after you wake up.

One article from Buffer says that science has found there are more connections in the brain, a vital part of the creative process, in the morning:

“A scientific study of brain circuits confirmed that this creative activity is highest during and immediately after sleep, while the analytical parts of the brain (the editing and proofreading parts) become more active as the day goes on.”

After all, as the author says…”creativity is a function of connections between many different networks throughout the brain.”

So that helps explain the 5 a.m. ideas, but what about the ones that come during the 3 a.m. baby feedings? We’re still exhausted at all at that point, yet our creative brain is running wild.

Well, another article suggests that being tired may have something to do with our late-night imagination.

Basically, your frontal lobe, the same area of the brain where the prefrontal cortex is, slows way down at night when you’re tired. It’s sorta the flip side of what we just talked about with early morning ideas.

Now remember, the prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobe, so when the frontal lobe slows down, your attention, planning, and problem-solving skills are all off their game.

This may sound like a bad thing, but as the author of the article cited above points out, when your frontal lobe isn’t trying to perfect everything, your brain is allowed to “run wild” with ideas that would normally be pushed out or labeled as impractical when the frontal lobe is hitting on all cylinders.

So maybe it has to do with the fact that we’re just waking up so our brains are more active really early in the morning, or (if it’s really early, like in the middle of the night) maybe it has to do with the fact that we might still be exhausted.

It could also just be that we’ve finally given our brains a break from the distractions. During the day, we have tons of things on our minds and multiple tasks to balance at the same time.

At night, we don’t have that. No noise, no distractions. All we have is quite time to reflect.

Your brain also gets a break while you sleep, so it’s had a chance to regroup by the time ideas start popping back into your head early in the morning.

After all, sleep is one of the most important aspects of staying healthy both mentally and physically.

Either way, I think it’s safe to say that ideas come easiest really late at night and really early in the morning. So keep your Evernote handy. Because rest assured you will forget that amazing idea you had in the middle of the night if you don’t write it down. I can’t count the times that’s happened too.

(Btw, I started writing this article at 4 a.m.)

Posted by Mike P. Taylor

Mike P. Taylor is an author, speaker, and consultant who helps people understand God's goodness in a fresh way. He's the author of the book Grounded Faith for Practical People and he writes at mikeptaylor.com where he helps people rethink religion for a new generation. He lives in Nashville, TN with his wife Sydney and their four kids.