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Let the Mind Wander to Promote Creative Thinking

Got a predicament that seems impossible to resolve? Research suggests that letting the mind wander may promote complex problem solving and promote creativity.

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Ever struggle with a problem, only to have the answer pop up in the middle of something else? Perhaps the answer lies in letting the mind wander, like during a daydream. Research suggests that while the mind wanders, the brain might actually be working creatively to solve complex problems [1].

(Day)Dream On — The Takeaway

In several brain scan studies, researchers found that mind wandering tended to trigger brain activity in areas dealing with intricate and creative problem solving [1] [2]. Mind wandering, researchers suggest, might allow the brain to focus its attention on more distant tasks and issues in a unique, highly creative way [1]. This activity is most evident when people are unaware their minds are wandering, suggesting daydreaming’s problem solving capabilities might be greatest when we’re oblivious to our own mental drift (so meta!) [1]. Of course, that creativity may come at a price: being oblivious to mind wandering also means less focus on the task at hand [1].

Letting the mind wander may thus promote creativity and allow the brain to address multiple questions at the same time [3]. Mind wandering can often occur when participating in mindless activities (reading this article is not one of those activities), but it can also happen at inconvenient times, like driving a car or reading information that needs to be used in a report. And while some scientists theorize daydreaming could actually complement focused tasks by keeping the brain aroused, more research is needed to fully understand the sometimes-blurry line between mind wandering and focus.

The Tip

Give the mind some room to wander to enhance creative and complex problem solving.

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Works Cited +

  1. Experience sampling during fMRI reveals default network and executive system contributions to mind wandering. Christoff, K. et. al. Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6Z 2R8 Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 May 26;106(21):8719-24. Epub 2009 May 11.
  2. Wandering minds: the default network and stimulus-independent thought. Mason MF, Norton MI, Van Horn JD, et. al. Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH. Science. 2007 Jan 19;315(5810):393-5.
  3. The Restless Mind. Smallwood J. and Schooler J. Psychology Department, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland. Psychol Bull. 2006 Nov;132(6):946-58.