While the mind’s away, your thoughts will play

Graphic Phil Waheed

When he was faced with a particularly vexing problem, Albert Einstein had a simple method for coming up with a solution: he would pick up his violin and improvise melodies. Soon enough he’d experience the elusive “eureka” moment, put down his instrument and resume his work.

Though this may seem like the eccentric approach of an unconventional mind, it is actually grounded in science. A new study from the University of California in Santa Barbara claims that it’s actually in your best interests to indulge in the occasional bout of mental meandering. Researchers at the university asked participants to perform an “unusual use task” in which they had to come up with as many uses for an object as they could, and then split them into four groups.

Graphic Phil Waheed

The first group then performed a demanding task, the second an undemanding task, the third took a break and the fourth immediately repeated the “unusual use task.”

What the study showed was that only those who completed the undemanding task showed significant improvement the second time around. The study concluded that “engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving” and the implications of this could be substantial.

“The discovery that under the appropriate circumstances mind-wandering can foster creative processes could eventually lead to the development of programs and techniques that facilitate creative incubation in professional and pedagogical domains,” said Benjamin Baird, co-author of the study.

He mentioned programs like Google’s ‘20 per cent time’ and 3M’s ‘15 per cent program’, which allow employees to pursue special projects on company time, as evidence that the business world has lost no time in taking advantage of this fact.

They are programs that allow their employees to take a portion of their paid time to decompress and let their imagination and creative thoughts take over. He thinks that further research like his could provide “the foundation for programs like this to become part of the structure of competitive businesses and other institutions in a society increasingly driven by innovative ideas.”

In her article Rest Is Not Idleness: Implications of the Brain’s Default Mode for Human Development and Education, University of Southern California professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang argues that the “time off” our brains take also enables us to make sense of our past as well as prepare for the future.

“Rest isn’t idleness, we are doing something, we’re making meaning out of our experiences, rehashing and formulating them into coherent narratives that we can then make into personal memories we can learn from and move forward with.”

She also suggests that this down time allows our brain to appreciate and imagine hypothetical and future scenarios that allow us to try on sets of events before they happen and get a sense of what the possibilities are for the future.

“We know that these kinds of future oriented mindsets and the ability to imagine hypothetical events in the future is critical for success, especially academic success.”

Though Einstein played the violin in search of answers, keep in mind that Nero fiddled while Rome burned; before you go flitting off into flights of fancy, be aware that your daydreaming is a double-edged sword.

According to one study from researchers at the University of North Carolina, daydreaming can actually be detrimental to whatever task you find yourself escaping from. Allowing the mind to wander “tends to lead to poorer performance on whatever ongoing activities we’re partaking in,” said professor Michael Kane, the author of the study. “In part this seems to be because we do less processing of the external world while mind wandering, and we are less likely to over-ride automatic, ‘auto-pilot’ responses while engaged in task-unrelated thoughts.”

So in short, do feel free to let your mind wander, just make sure that it doesn’t go too far.


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