Creative Wandering

May 23, 2012

The history of science has a number of stories (either real or apocryphal) of creative discoveries achieved at odd moments, from Archimedes in his bath to Newton and his apple.   Some new research, reported in an article at Nature, suggests that allowing one’s mind to wander may actually help to facilitate creative thought.

A team of psychological researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara, led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, conducted an experiment with a group of undergraduates.  The 145 participants were first given two minutes to answer two “unusual uses” quizzes, in which they were to list as many uses of a few everyday objects (e.g., a toothpick) as they could think of.  They were then divided into four groups; three of the groups got a twelve-minute break, each group with a specific activity:

  1. The first group was assigned a demanding task that required their concentration.
  2. The second took a (relatively) mindless reaction-time test.
  3. The third group just rested.

The fourth group had no break.

The subjects were then assigned to do another set of four “unusual uses” quizzes.  Two were the same ones they had completed earlier, and two were new.  The researchers then compared the scored of the four sub-groups.

There was a significant difference only in the sub-group that performed the “mindless” task during their break; they did much better on the quizzes they had seen previously.

Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed an average of 41% better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement.

Seemingly, the subjects who had the opportunity to let their minds wander during the break were able to continue to work on the problems they had just seen, though they were not consciously working on them.

“The implication is that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on. It didn’t seem to lead to a general increase in creative problem-solving ability,” says Baird.

This is an interesting result, and one that I find consistent with some of my own experience.  I’ve often had the experience of being asked a question, feeling sure that I know the answer, but being unable to recall it immediately.  (I’m sure some readers, especially those who are getting to middle age, have had similar experiences.)    It is almost always the case, though, that the answer will occur to me sometime later, more or less out of the blue, when I am driving, taking a shower, or walking down the street.  It’s as if the original question had launched a mental “background process” to search for the answer.  As I’ve remarked in another context, I don’t think any of us has a terribly good understanding of how we think.

The article, which is in press, will be published in Psychological Science.

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