A little mind-wandering can go a long way

Take a pen and piece of paper, and get ready to write for 60 seconds. Now, list all the uses you can think of for a brick.

Go ahead, I’ll wait. Here’s an image to get those creative juices flowing: 

Now, let’s have a look at your list. Aside from the obvious “build a wall”, there are a number of things we can use bricks for. They line the beds in our garden, they support the beds in our dorm rooms. They are paperweights (if unwieldy ones) and doorstops. But there are some that you might not imagine. Two of my favorites: “a stepping stool for short actors in a kissing scene”, and “something to hold in your hand when greeting door-to-door salesmen”. One of the most recent fun answers I’ve encountered is “a mock coffin at a Barbie funeral“, over at a website describing this task in its official capacity as a measure of creativity.

Yes, believe it or not, this is a standard and widely-accepted question to look at how creative someone is, by taking that list and looking at how many answers there are, how elaborate they get, how different from each other they are, and how unique from other people’s answers they are. And it is a task that has supported last week’s finding that our unconscious minds may be better decision-makers than our conscious ones. Not only will you choose a better car if you put all the options out of your mind, you’ll  also, well, come up with more creative uses for a brick.

To show that a little mind-wandering can go a long way, Benjamin Baird of the University of California, Santa Barbara and his colleagues set college students to these tasks. The students tried their hands at coming up with creative uses for two objects (say, a brick and a rubber ball). Then they either got a 12-minute break, or spent 12 minutes completing a simple task that allowed mind wandering (looking at a string of numbers and every now and then, when prompted, saying whether the number was odd or even) or a difficult task (looking at the same string of numbers but keeping track of every one, so they can say whether two numbers in a row are the same). Finally the students came up for more creative uses, for the same two objects and for two new ones, perhaps a wire clothes hanger.*

None of the students knew they would have to come up with more creative uses for bricks or other objects, so even the ones told to just sit quietly for 12 minutes weren’t spending too much time thinking about that task. Despite this, one group returned to the creativity task with a clear advantage: Students who completed the simple “is it odd or even” task came up with about 40% more creative uses for the brick and rubber ball than they had the first time, while the other groups were no more creative the second time around. This creativity is limited just to the objects they’d tried before, not the new ones, so it’s another example of unconscious processing not a general spike in creativity.

It’s not too surprising that the students completing a more difficult task showed no gains in creativity; they had to keep their attention on their task the entire time, with few spare moments for mind wandering and unconscious thought processes. It is more surprising that even the students who sat quietly showed no creativity gains; the researchers don’t speculate as to why, but I would guess that these students got so involved in thinking something else (what am I going to have for dinner, perhaps) that their attention was just as focused as the ones doing the more difficult task.

So despite my attempts to meditate every day, and to practice mindfulness throughout the day by focusing on the specific task at hand, I will not be attempting to eradicate mind wandering from my life entirely. It’s not just thinking about something completely unrelated, but something special about the wandering off task and getting back on it that seems to help. So the next time I want to boost my creativity, I’ll allow myself some “free-range thinking”, and let the back of my mind tackle the problem for me. Even if the problem isn’t as fun as coming up with new uses for a brick.

*Favorite there: place in enemy’s closet “triggering wire hangers’ well-known propensity to tangle with other wire hangers and inducing nervous breakdown in enemy”.

Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M., Kam, J., Franklin, M., & Schooler, J. (2012). Inspired by distraction: Mind wandering facilitates creative incubation Psychological Science, 23, 1117-1122 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446024


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