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If you want to solve a problem, let your mind wander...

September 16, 2021
By Trish Osler

Brain on red background walking with kerchief on stick Credit: Corbis

You’ve finally sat down to write that challenging midterm paper.

Invigorated by a pressing deadline, you’ve cleared your desk, braced the door against roommates, and silenced your Twitter feed. You settle comfortably into your desk chair and wait for inspiration to arrive. Half an hour later, with nothing coming to mind, you’re experiencing a total brain freeze and you’ve forgotten why you picked that topic to begin with.

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Sometimes a wandering mind leads to the answer you need

When your imagination is at a creative standstill, that’s when you need to clear the mental pathway to making connections. One quick fix? Get up and do something that requires no thinking. Often, the ideas you are in pursuit of will effortlessly float forward during the most mindless of tasks.

Mind wandering, or daydreaming, often occurs when you are not focused on the specific task in front of you. This does not mean distracting yourself by binge watching Netflix or listening to a fave podcast, but rather, doing something that is less engaging; something that is repetitive and relaxing—an activity so familiar that it takes no conscious brain power. Try folding laundry, shooting hoops or walking around your neighbourhood. Do something with your hands—even better, make it visual, like doodling..

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Daydreaming is good for you

There’s a reason why you get your best ideas when you’re least expecting them. Scientific research on the creative process pinpoints how different types of activity in the brain are connected to your ability to generate and evaluate ideas.

There are two different types of creative thinking: divergent and convergent. Divergent thinking is a process of organically generating and evaluating a spectrum of possibilities. For example, when you’re brainstorming, the quantity of ideas becomes more important than the quality. Convergent thinking consciously generates a solution to a problem from the available information. Creativity requires both types of thinking in order to be most effective.

Your ability to generate and execute creative ideas depends on an incubation period. Your brain needs downtime in order to process complex ideas and, through insight, create new ones.

The prepared mind

Scientists believe that when our mind wanders, it can do useful and important things. But this doesn’t happen without first having pondered the subject. Writing on the neuroscience of creativity, Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg affirms that directed mind wandering has been found to assist in consciously addressing a problem. In other words, spontaneous thought processes combine with a conscious, prepared mind (the state you’re in when deliberately seeking to arrive at a solution). This interplay between the spontaneous and the conscious liberates your brain from concentrated problem-solving and allows for new connections to be made in the neural networking of thought.

For example, when you are focused, your pre-frontal cortex (the part of your brain that organizes and evaluates ideas) is responding to other regions that generate ideas and control memory, affect and sensory input. But this process, while directing your thinking, can also constrain it. You may get the feeling that you know what you want to say, but not how to get there. The activated regions haven’t yet become an interconnected network, and the key insight that links the problem or task to a solution hasn’t yet formed. Allowing for some non-task related mind wandering helps fill in the gaps by deactivating focused problem-solving in favour of building new pathways between the neural networks.

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Mental wandering helps make connections

Directed mental wandering is more of a process than a method. The problem that you’re trying to solve remains in your working memory, so your mind is still prepared to recognize a good solution when it appears. This network operates even when you’re not consciously trying to solve a problem. In fact, it may be more fruitful to work on unrelated tasks for a short time, intentionally introducing disruptive things into your working environment. Even changing the lighting in your space or the vibe of your background music can help move the brain from focused, convergent thinking to more open-ended divergent thinking. This means that your brain will evaluate many more possibilities than those uniquely associated with the problem.

So next time you find yourself stuck in front of a screen trying to write code or formulate a coherent proposal, take a short break and change things up. If nothing else, a new activity can disrupt the feeling of being mentally blocked and break open an unproductive loop of convergent thought.

Creating the cognitive ‘space’ for new information to combine with pre-existing thought is as simple as stepping away from the problem. Fix your bike, make some art, cook a meal, or go for a stroll and give yourself permission to let your mind wander. By doing this, you’ll give yourself a much better chance for success.

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About the author

Photo of Trish Osler

As a practicing artist, researcher and art educator, Trish Osler works across disciplines in fine arts, science and museum culture on projects informed by the neuroscience of creativity. Her scholarly arts-based research explores artistic thinking processes, inspiration and aesthetic perception, seeking new approaches to teaching and learning.

A Doctoral Candidate with Concordia’s Faculty of Fine Art (Art Education), Trish holds an M.Ed (Art) from Western University as well as undergraduate degrees from OCAD University (Fine Arts, Drawing & Painting) and Queen’s University (English Literature). Trish is also the Director of Academic Research with the Convergence Initiative and co-instructs Convergence: Art, Neuroscience + Society. She has collaborated with the Innovation Lab at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art on virtual engagement in museum spaces and is currently co-editing two books that explore both international and Canadian museum education. While serving as a Concordia Public Scholar, Trish aims to bring new findings about the neuroscience of creativity into public conversations about the creative process and art education.

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