Under what conditions are we most creative?

While we might not love the idea of deadlines, they can be cause for some of our greatest creative work.

TINA BROWN: Well, I think writers and photographers and all creative people do need a deadline to get anything done.

It's remarkable to me, including myself, if someone isn't saying to me, I want this piece, I'm not going to write it. I'm just not. It's too hard. Writing is too difficult. And doing any creative work takes such intellectual sort of tussle that if there's any way you can escape from it, you will.

So deadlines, I think, are a critical point of extracting great work. And interestingly, some of the best work has been done under deadline. For instance, the great photographer, Richard Avedon, he always liked to do both kinds of work - his deadline work, his journalism work, his fashion magazine work, and then his artistic shows. His best art was actually the stuff he did for magazines. I mean, it was better than anything he did on the slow burn of his shows. There was something about the adrenaline. There was something about the discipline of knowing that you had an audience as opposed to simply being a museum show or whatever that actually brought out the best work in his artistry, I think.

And I think that's often true, that sometimes the best work is done under the gun - somebody writing at warp speed. I think that, interestingly, the journalism that was done right after 9/11 was some of the best journalism that we've seen in the last 25 years. It was like writers and photographers and editors, so energized by the need to get this content done, there wasn't any wasting of time or sort of frothing it all up or whatever, they did their best work. They were really inspired to do their best work. And that was done under the gun with a need to get it done. There's nothing like the urgency of subject matter, content, and passion.

I actually think sometimes you can do your best work when you're up against the wall. I mean, sometimes we create some amazing cover when we lost our big star, just by being creative.
And in fact, one of my mottos as an editor was, if you haven't got a budget, get yourself a point of view. It's like you have to be cleverer with no budget. And you have to, perhaps, come up with some angle, some creative idea that will get you over that hump.

I always rather like working with TV producers, actually, in my role at Women in the World because they have to fill that seat on the program. Otherwise, it's just empty screen. So that makes them a bit less procrastinating, frankly, than people working in a situation where they've got another way out. If you have to get somebody there, you've got to figure out, well, I haven't been able to get that big guest. I've got to find this other guest who's going to be as interesting, but perhaps in a completely different way. That takes a bit more creativity.

  • Creative individuals produce better work when there's a deadline involved, says media mogul Tina Brown.
  • To extract great work, you shouldn't have the option to escape it. Deadlines add a level of pressure that makes for better results.
  • In Brown's opinion, some of the best journalistic work was done in the period after 9/11. The combination of subject matter, content, and passion rallied creatives to put forth incredible coverage.

        Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
        Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
        • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
        • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
        • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
        Keep reading Show less

        The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

        New research establishes an unexpected connection.

        Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
        Surprising Science
        • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
        • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
        • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

        We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

        A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

        The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

        An unexpected culprit

        The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

        What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

        "We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

        "Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

        fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

        Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

        The experiments

        The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

        You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

        For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

        Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

        The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

        However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

        The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

        As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

        The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

        The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

        "We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

        Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

        Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

        We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

        Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
        Surprising Science
        • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
        • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
        • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
        Keep reading Show less

        Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

        Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

        Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
        Culture & Religion

        Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

        Keep reading Show less

        Is there a limit to optimism when it comes to climate change?

        Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

        David McNew/Getty Images
        Politics & Current Affairs

        'We're doomed': a common refrain in casual conversation about climate change.

        Keep reading Show less