Mind wandering mind finds answers

“Some of my best ideas have come to me in the shower.”

I’m sure you’ve heard people say this over the years; maybe you’ve said it yourself. It’s been my experience as well. There’s something else I’ve noticed about myself. I’ll often struggle to solve a problem or figure something out–with no success. Frustrated, I will give up and walk away. After a while–sometimes a day or two later–there’s an epiphany, and all of a sudden, the way forward–the solution I was struggling to find just pops into my head. 

Has that ever happened to you?

A woman in the shower
image credit:n rick-gebhardt-unsplash

A focused mind needs a break

It turns out that these two phenomena are related. Dr. Zachary Irwing, professor of cognitive science at the University of Virginia has been researching the subject of what’s known as mind wandering for several years. He says that unwavering focus on a task can inhibit creativity. His research finds that instead of mulling over a problem until it is solved, we are better off taking a break and doing something else that is mildly engaging. This creates an environment that allows our minds to wander freely, without purpose or direction.

As our thoughts drift, he argues, we are more likely to come up with the solution we have been seeking. “Mind-wandering is unguided attention,” Dr. Irving explains, “it facilitates creative incubation of ideas.” It provides a balance between focused, linear thinking that limits originality, and unbounded, random associations. It can lead to those “Eureka Moments” that we all have once in a while.

A man sitting in a chair looking up at the sky
image credit:n rick-gebhardt-unsplash

Daydreaming helps creativity

Mind wandering is important not just for creativity and problem-solving. It is a subject of interest for many cognitive neuroscientists, who tell us we typically spend up to 50% of our time in this mode. Many of us treat mind-wandering as a deficiency, a distractive habit that prevents us from focusing on the task at hand. ‘Stop daydreaming and focus,’ we tell ourselves, ‘Pay attention!’

Dr. Julia Kam leads the Internal Attention Lab at the University of Calgary to study how our brain supports the experience of mind wandering, and how this experience in turn impacts our behavior and well-being.

“I came into the field wanting to find a cure” for mind wandering, she says.  Her research led her in the opposite direction: to appreciate the freedom of an unfocused mind, and how allowing freely-moving thoughts replenishes you and make you happier.  In contrast, internal thinking known as rumination, where the mind constantly churns over the same things over and over often leads to depression and anxiety. 

Ruminate and replenish

One recommendation that this type of research has for us is to periodically engage in activities that are easy, repetitive, and almost mundane and allow our thoughts to flow freely. Dr. Kam encourages us to make space to think in idle ways unrelated to tasks because doing so can replenish us.

A recent study by researchers from Japan addresses our inherent inability to enjoy the process of what they call ‘just thinking.’ It explains why we feel the need to keep ourselves busy, instead of taking advantage of the moments in our daily lives that provide an opportunity for reflection and imagination. 

In this day and age, most of us when given this opportunity will reach for our smart devices instead, in order to ‘kill time.’ Other research also supports assertions that mind wandering not only makes us more creative, and further, mind-wandering – not rumination – can improve our moods and make us happier. Yet another interesting outcome is that effective mind wandering at work can improve job performance. Efficiency isn’t always productive when it comes to the way our minds work, argues clinical psychologist Katina Bajaj, we have to learn how to offload our thoughts.

Ideas in the shower

On a personal note, I can attest to the fact that I’ve had some good, creative ideas in the shower. Ideas for some of my monthly articles popped into my mind while I was singing as hot water cascaded over me.  I can also vouch for the fact that I eventually succeeded in solving problems many a time after first focusing in them for a long time and then walking away from them, at an impasse. 

During my daily walks, my thoughts bounce all over the place as I look around, triggered by what I see and feel.  Coupled with the fresh air and exercise, these free-ranging thoughts help me return home invigorated and feeling good about myself. The concept of putting this all together to consciously create conditions that foster mind wandering to improve my life and well-being is new for me, however.  It is a practice that I will consider seriously.

A man wearing a backpack walking in the mountaibs
image credit: lucas-almann-pexels

Mind wandering = Creativity

A recent book by Olga Mecking tells us to embrace Niksen, the Dutch art of intentionally doing nothing and letting our minds wander. This is much needed in our over-scheduled, non-stop lives, she argues, saying that the fact that it increases productivity and creativity is not the reason governments and employers should encourage it.

They should also do so because it increases the well-being of its employees. “We need to stop treating rest, Niksen, wool-gathering, whatever you want to call it, as something we have to earn and start thinking of it as something we deserve—something we’re already worthy of. And we have to do it soon.”

Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Mukund Acharya is a regular columnist for India Currents. He is also President and a co-founder of Sukham, an all-volunteer non-profit organization in the Bay Area that advocates for healthy aging within...