Why mind wandering is good for your creativity
If you want to become more creative, one of the most effective things you can do is become more comfortable letting your mind wander.
It sounds simple, but there is a wealth of research which shows the creative benefits of letting your thoughts flow freely.
Mind wandering, or daydreaming, often occurs when you are not focussed on a specific task in front of you. Often, it is associated with being in a more relaxed state of mind, such as when you are in the shower.
This allows your brain to incubate ideas, more effectively trying out random connections between networks in the brain when trying to solve a challenge. This incubation state is one of the primary aspects of the Creative Process.
The challenge which many people have nowadays is that we are so used to being constantly distracted that it can feel unnerving to be left alone with our own thoughts. In one experiment, the majority of men would actually give themselves electric shocks instead of allowing themselves to become bored.
In one of the most important recent pieces of research into creativity, Baird et al (2012) wanted to investigate how different activities affected creative performance.
They asked 145 participants to complete a short, 2 minute long divergent thinking test. Then, they split the participants into four groups, who would do one of the following for 12 minutes (except for the Rest group who had no break):
- No Rest: Participants got no break and would then repeat another set of divergent thinking tests immediately again.
- Rest: Participants were asked to sit and do nothing for 12 minutes
- Undemanding Task: Participants were given a simple, not mentally demanding task for 12 minutes. In this case, watching a computer screen and saying if a number displayed was odd or even.
- Demanding Task: Participants were given a more complex, mentally demanding task for 12 minutes. In this case, watching a computer screen and saying if the previously-displayed number displayed was odd or even, which is much more demanding on working memory.
After the 12 minute tasks, the participants would redo the divergent thinking test again for 2 additional minutes. Some of the tests given were the same as the ones already answered, to see if additional new divergent ideas were incubated during the 12 minutes.
The results were fascinating, as shown in Figure 1 from the study:
The undemanding task resulted in a significant improvement in how many additional ideas people came up with for the questions they had previously been asked.
This indicates that while people were performing this task, even though they were not aware of it, their subconscious mind was still thinking of new answers to the challenge.
In comparison, the demanding task resulted in almost no new ideas, and neither did the “rest” condition, where people may expect people’s mind to wander. The people who had no break fared worst of all.
This indicates that if you want to come up with more ideas to a challenge you are working on, or to enter a state which facilitates your incubation, you should do an activity which does not require much mental effort, but still a little bit.
It should also be a different type of mental activity than what you are using to solve the challenge. So if you are struggling to write something, take some time and maybe do something visual, like draw some doodles.
Or if you are trying to solve a code, design or math challenge, do something with your hands, like cooking or playing with LEGO.
And don’t be afraid to let your mind wander.