Inspired living

Why you should let your mind wander

Wandering mind

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Newton hit on his theory of gravity after seeing an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s Garden. Einstein began his theory of relativity while daydreaming about riding beside a sunbeam to the edge of the universe (after he was expelled from school for rebelling against rote learning). Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” when he made his breakthrough discovery of displacement in the bath, and the tune Yesterday came to Paul McCartney as he lay in bed half asleep. What’s the common link between these world-changing epiphanies? They were all stumbled upon in moments of mind wandering.

In the age of the mindfulness revolution, when focus, concentration and thought control are exalted, the idea of encouraging the mind to wander without constraint is controversial. Yet pioneers of science and philosophy are standing up in defence of the daydreamer and telling us to let go of the leash and instead give our minds a wide-open horizon in which to wander without time or destination. Not only is it a natural function of our brains, they say, so too is it the key to original thought.

In 2012, psychologists from the University of California in the US set about exploring the phenomenon of why great ideas arise when we’re not trying. The researchers presented 145 undergraduate students with the task of listing as many uses as possible for everyday objects such as toothpicks, coat-hangers and bricks, within two minutes. After the time was over, participants were given a 12-minute break, during which they either rested, undertook a demanding memory activity that required their full attention, or engaged in an undemanding activity known to elicit mind-wandering. A fourth group of students had no break. All participants were then presented again with four “unusual-uses” tasks, including the two they had completed earlier.

Some physicists advocated three Bs for creativity: bath, bed and bus. I think there are two more: boardroom and boredom.

The results were fascinating. Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed, on average, 41 per cent better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement. Interestingly, those whose minds were encouraged to wander during the break did not do any better than others on unusual-uses tasks that they encountered for the first time in the second round. The implication being, said researcher Benjamin Baird, that mind-wandering was only helpful for problems that were already being mentally chewed on.

Free-ranging minds

In the field of evolutionary science, mind-wandering has hitherto been thought of as counter-productive, compromising both physical abilities and awareness. However, new thinking is pointing to the fact that zoning out may have actually aided humans when survival depended on creative solutions.

The window gazers of the world have good reason to feel vindicated at this news, says Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland, Dr Michael Corballis. In his new book Pieces of Mind: 21 Short Walks around the Human Brain, the cognitive neuroscientist says that, while the wandering mind gets a bad rap, it actually allows us to be creative, plan ahead and helps define our sense of self. “We are hard-wired to have our minds wander,” he told a packed auditorium at the Mind & Its Potential conference in Sydney last year.

Corballis pointed to brain-scan images that revealed more regions of the brain were active when people were daydreaming compared to when they were focused. “Imagine your brain as a small town,” he said. “Everyone is buzzing around in a normal day. Then you have an event, like a football game, and everyone goes to the football game and becomes focused.” Rather than concentrated attention, the brain’s optimum performance is a flow between focus and free association.

A comprehensive study of mind-wandering habits surveyed 2250 people across 83 countries by randomly contacting them on a phone app over 24 hours. Just under half were mind wandering at any one point in time, mostly in either pleasant or neutral thought of past or present.

In the age of the mindfulness revolution, when focus, concentration and thought control are exalted, the idea of encouraging the mind to wander without constraint is controversial.

It is this brain mechanism of “mental time travel” — the calling to mind of remembered past events and of imagined future ones — that has been the focus of Corballis’ research. “Brains are built to transcend the present,” he said. “With our autobiographical memory we relive past events or create future ones. Memory itself is a creative process — not necessarily reporting what happened to us but what we like to think happened as well.”

Mental time Travel has been critical to the evolution of language, Corballis argues, which enables us to communicate about the non-present, sharing memories, plans and ideas. It also allows us to devote conscious thought to the connections between our past and future selves. “When you are thinking about the future, you are generating a picture of who you are and who you would like to be. Wandering into the past helps to cement memories and defines who you were. It’s critical to the sense of self. You are what your memories and plans are.”

The fate of life lived solely in the present is akin to those cases where the hippocampus — the brain’s mental time-travel project manager — has been destroyed, said Corballis. “It would be like floating permanently in the middle of a lake where there is no land in sight.”

According to him, “Mind wandering encourages lateral thinking, allowing you to imagine yourself in other people’s heads so you open [up] to the possibilities of new discoveries or insights.”

The creative brain

Distraction, another much-maligned mental function, provides the break the brain needs to disengage from fixating on solutions, explains Harvard researcher Shelley Carson in her book, The Creative Brain.

Interruptions such as jumping into the shower can open what scientists call the “incubation period” for your ideas: when the subconscious mind that has been working hard to solve the problems has a chance to surface and plant the ideas in the conscious mind.

Carson’s studies show that, not only are creative people more susceptible to “novelty”, and thus distraction, but mind wandering itself is associated with highly creative people. The creative wellspring that is mind wandering happens to Corballis when he is least expecting it, such as on long-haul flights, when “all sorts of wonderful ideas, poems and article ideas come to me”.

“All this propaganda about paying attention in schools is quite possibly drumming the creativity out of kids,” he said at the conference. “They need the opportunity to stop concentrating in order to think outside the square.”

While the key to mind wandering is not “trying” for it, Corballis suggests doing “semi-boring” things like driving or knitting, which engage your brain just the right amount yet still allow escape from the present. “Some physicists advocated three Bs for creativity: bath, bed and bus. I think there are two more: boardroom and boredom,” he said.

For Damon Young, Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, it is another B that is the catalyst for his mind wandering: body movement. His most recent book, How to Think About Exercise, mounts a convincing case for how regular footslogging can enrich our creativity and enhance our characters. “When walking or running, a particular state of mind arises when your mind is engaged in doing something automatic and the part of the brain that co-ordinates thought is slowed down,” Young said, also speaking at the Mind & Its Potential conference.

“It’s like you’re removing the symphony conductor from your mind and suddenly it starts playing improvisational jazz. When that happens, your mind starts throwing up interesting ideas, impressions, feelings, epiphanies and revelations that you otherwise would not have had.”

Young attributes this effect to what scientists call “transient hypofrontality”: a state of mind promoted by pursuits that require physical exertion but little thought or concentration. The parts of the brain that co-ordinate general concepts and rules are turned down, while the motor and sensory parts are turned up. In this state, ideas and impressions mingle more freely and unusual and unexpected thoughts arise.

“It’s something about movement itself,” said Young. “Partly because the body is devoting its energy to motor functions of moving and partly because you’re taking resources away from the part that co-ordinates ideas. It’s a kind of mental ‘unsorting’ that takes away categories and relationships of ideas and jiggles them about into new combinations.”

Young documents an impressive list of creative thinkers who solved their puzzles on foot. The grandfather of modern evolutionary theory Charles Darwin walked twice daily, rain, hail or shine, along a gravel track he called his “thinking path”, reflecting among the privet, often alongside his fox terrier. Young explains how Darwin had a little pile of stones on the path, and he kicked one with each turn: some ideas were four-pebble problems. “It was a vital part of his intellectual routine.”

Pioneers of science and philosophy are standing up in defence of the daydreamer and telling us to let go of the leash and instead give our minds a wide-open horizon in which to wander without time or destination.

Immanuel Kant was, apparently, so regular in his walks that the citizens of Königsberg (modern-day Kaliningrad, Russia) set their clocks by his wanders, while Friedrich Nietzsche strolled for hours around lakes or mountains. Contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami runs marathons which, according to Young, gives the writer “not only strength and solitude, but also a certain liberty of mind”. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes that he jogs to gain a “void”: a mental blank, around which random thoughts come and go.

According to Young, it’s a practice that workplaces could consider. “If you’re a manager, for example, and asking people to monitor their time, you’re undermining their capacity to get their creative work done,” he said. “At the 3pm slump, rather than a coffee and doughnut, it might be better for productivity to encourage staff to go for a brisk walk or run.”

Is mindfulness outmoded?

So where do meditation and mindfulness fit in with all this free and easy thinking? Long-term practitioner of Vipassana, Insight and Zen meditation, Dr Sarah Nicholson, says there is not so great a divide between mind wandering and mindfulness.

“While some of the more common understandings of mindfulness might suggest that the mind is calm and focused and, thus, not wandering, I don’t think mindfulness excludes a wandering mind,” she says. “On the contrary, I think mindful focus will often expose the wandering nature of the mind.”

Nicholson explains that, if we think of mindfulness in terms of a state of presence, there is no reason we can’t have present awareness of our wandering mind. “For me, the distinction is in mindful awareness. We can have a soft awareness that gently watches the mind as it wanders, or we can have a sharper awareness that is highly focused on one element. While producing different results, neither state is essentially better than the other.”

Nicholson appreciated the free-associative wanderings of her mind while writing her latest book, The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: from the Goddess to Integral Feminism. “The wandering mind has the potential to be highly creative,” she says. “It can playfully make spontaneous connections and particularly draw upon the unconscious. I’ve used this a lot as a writer, particularly using free or flow writing techniques.”

Nicholson wonders whether the debate between a free or focused mind is a reflection of her own struggles of finding an integrative meditation practice. “I think there is often a ‘masculine’ imperative in spiritual practice, sometimes explicit, sometimes an undercurrent, that suggests we sit still and straight, focus our mind, don’t wander. Over time, I’ve been moved towards what might be considered a more feminine practice: one that allows for softness, rest, flow, pleasure.”

Meditation is a valuable practice, agrees Young. “By stepping back, and watching the weird procession of thoughts and ideas go by, you realise you are not them. It helps you not judge yourself because you don’t identify with every passing whim and desire.

“In the end, the result of meditation is that you are not enslaved to the quirks of your own intellect. You know better how your mind works, which includes the function of letting it wander.”


Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.


Claire Dunn

Claire Dunn is the author of My Year Without Matches: Escaping the City in Search of the Wild, available in bookshops and online.