A Wandering Mind Is a Creative Mind

Despite the challenges inherent in conducting creativity research — operationalizing or defining “creativity” can seem like one of those answerless Google job interview questions — some promising findings are turning up that suggest distraction and mind-wandering can have positive effects. A new study attempts to create a more coherent explanation for how these things affect creativity by examining the effects of different kinds of breaks or “incubation” periods.

Researchers first presented participants with a problem, after which participants engaged in either a demanding task, an undemanding task, or a free period of rest. A fourth group was given no break at all. When participants were once again presented with the problem, those who worked on the undemanding task gave more creative responses.

Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number of explicitly directed thoughts about the [creativity problem]. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.

The neat thing about dull tasks enhancing creativity is that it makes sense from a purely cognitive standpoint. If you were going to design a computer program to come up with “creative” solutions, the first step would be telling it to avoid the 99% of algorithms, permutations, and ideas that are commonly used. People can’t simply turn their brains off and ignore those things, but doing an undemanding task may occupy the parts of consciousness most likely to focus on them. With the “uncreative” part of the mind occupied, the “creative” part can then swoop in and take control of the idea generation and problem solving processes.

The other nice thing about creativity research on mind-wandering is that it’s relatively practical. The idea of “the quantified self” already has people tracking their diets, moods, and work habits, and it seems obvious that this will eventually include figuring out which simple activities maximize mind-wandering. (Many people claim that showering does it for them. For me, it’s driving.) It’s easy to imagine a future where the middle and upper classes do nothing we now consider demanding except for one boring task done to artificially force their mind to wander.
Baird, B., Smallwood, J., Mrazek, M.D., Kam, J.W.Y., Frankline, M.S., & Schooler, J.W. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446024

Why Do We Experience Mental States?

While mental states are generally thought to be involved in causing behavior, it is not clear why they are useful for this purpose. Would it not be possible for selection to design people so that, like biological automatons, they adaptively responded to stimuli without experiencing mental states (Dennett, 1991)?


All organisms were faced with problems in their evolutionary past in which they had to choose a response. For some problems, the type of response that maximized fitness depended heavily on subtle variations in context; for other problems, the best response was much less dependent upon subtle variations. However, there is no way to design a nervous system that simply calculates the fitness consequences of different actions to determine the option that maximizes reproduction (Symons, 1992; Tooby & Cosmides, 1990).

Still, the organism must have a nervous system that allows it to make good choices. Selection could imbue the nervous system with a suite of hard-wired response rules, each tailored to a particular context. If the organism is merely a collection of hard-wired rules, it will respond to environmental stimuli without necessarily experiencing mental states. However, hard-wired solutions are less tenable for problems in which the optimal response varies dramatically with subtle changes in context. To deal with a nearly infinite number of subtly varying contexts that could be encountered, the biological automaton must come equipped with a nearly infinite number of hard-wired rules, each of which is invoked in a slightly different context.

Alternatively, selection could design a nervous system that allows the organism, before
making a choice, to internally simulate the likely outcomes of behavioral options and predict which ones best satisfy internal goals (Alexander, 1989). Presumably, internal simulation would be less cumbersome than storing a large number of hard-wired rules and more efficient than post hoc learning. It would require the ability to internally represent the self and the external environment, including other actors if their behaviors must be simulated. Since actors have goals, internal simulation would also require representation of the motivational systems of the actors in the simulation. The organism must then make behavioral decisions on the basis of the outcomes of the internal simulation, which will require some internal standard of utility for identifying and comparing desirable and undesirable outcomes (e.g., aesthetic experience). In short, mental states (such as perceptions, beliefs, emotions, intentions, etc.) may allow an organism to identify a behavioral option (from a large suite of options) that approximates an optimal solution to a problem posed by the environment.

That’s Paul Andrews in an old Evolution and Human Behavior paper.

Not Believing in Stereotypes Can Make You More Creative

If you were a middle-class kid from the suburbs, you’re familiar with the day in elementary school when a community theater group comes in to teach you about the evils of stereotypes (through the magic of the stage!). The lesson was an important one, but a new study suggests that the reason why may be different from what you think. According to two researchers from the University of Kent, when a stereotype is disconfirmed (e.g. female mechanic), it can lead to more flexible thinking and more creativity.

We expected that because exposure to people who disconfirm stereotypes compels students to think “out of the box”, they will subsequently not only rely less on stereotypes, but in more general thinking rely less on easily accessible knowledge structures and be more flexible and creative. As predicted, being encouraged to think counter-stereotypically not only decreased stereotyping, but also, on a divergent creativity task, lead to the generation of more creative ideas – but only for individuals who initially reported a lower Personal Need for Structure.

The finding is fairly intuitive. If you think 30% of old Italian men are mobsters rather than 90%, your brain is going to have to do more creative thinking to create a profile of those 60%.

One another note, one reason I’m optimistic about the future of psychology is that I think we’ll eventually know enough to routinely find these “kill two birds with one stone” situations. Some of them already exist — for example, manipulating lay theories and regulatory orientations can have a variety of positive effects — and as psychologists improve their grasp of the higher-level processes that drive our thoughts and decisions I think we’ll learn about many more. When you figure out how to approach situation with the right outlook, mindset, and thought process, you’ll do better at whatever occurs in that situation.
Goclowski, M.A., & Crisp, R.J. (2012). On counter-stereotypes and creative cognition: When interventions for reducing prejudice can boost divergent thinking Thinking Skills and Creativity DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2012.07.001

Why Do East-Asians and Westerners Think Differently?

You might not know it from the bevy of hack comedians making jokes about the driving of Asian grandmothers, but the differences in how people from Western and Eastern cultures think has been scientifically documented. East Asians think more holistically and focus on relationships and interactive groupings, while Westerners think more analytically and focus on abstract rules. The question is, where do these differences come from?

Some new research that digs deeper into what drives these methods of thinking suggests that the differences stem from the need for personal control. Through a series of 12 experiments researchers found that being deprived of control led Chinese participants to think more like Westerners — that is, more analytically and less holistically. The reasoning is as follows:

Past work has thus contended that East Asians generally are inclined to accept things as they are and adjust themselves, whereas Westerners seek to change the world to suit themselves. Our work proposed, however, that these habits are not ironclad but flexible and that in particular people from both Asian and Western cultures may resort to analytical thinking when they wish to exert primary control over the environment.

In Western cultures people tend to alter their environment to suit themselves, an approach that’s more suited to analytical thinking. In Eastern cultures, people are more likely to change themselves to suit their environment, an approach where a “heightened focus on relationships and interactive groupings rather than abstract rules” is best. However, when people from Eastern cultures are deprived of control, it creates a desire to re-assert control and alter their environment, and that leads them to think more like Westerners. In other words, Easterners and Westerners don’t actually have different ways of thinking, they have differences in their desire for control.

The study is a good illustration of the difficulties involved in the idea of “cultural cognition,” and more generally in the difficulty of attempting to objectively rate the different theoretical approaches to human thinking. On one hand, from a practical standpoint the way people think on a day-to-day basis is clearly driven by their culture. On the other hand, when you dig deep enough the seemingly vast differences in the way people of different cultures think disappear — when it comes to re-asserting control, East and West think the same way. Depending on the level at which you’re examining human cognition, culture is everything (e.g. How does a person behave in a group?), or culture is meaningless (e.g. How does a person think when they want to assert personal control?)

On a slightly unrelated note, this sentence from the paper’s introduction is outstanding:

Acceptance requires the self to see what is there and relinquish emotional or motivational reactions that involve wishing it were different.

I feel like it should be on an inspirational poster in a college dorm room.
Zhou, X., He, L., Yang, Q., Lao, J., & Baumeister, R. (2012). Control deprivation and styles of thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (3), 460-478 DOI: 10.1037/a0026316

Tone Deaf People Might Not Actually Be Tone Deaf

A lack of vocal aptitude might not be the fault of your ears:

Many possible causes have been posited to explain poor singing abilities; foremost among these are poor perceptual ability, poor motor control, and sensorimotor mapping errors. To help discriminate between these causes of poor singing, we conducted 5 experiments testing musicians and nonmusicians in pitch matching and judgment tasks. Experiment 1 introduces a new instrument called a slider, on which participants can match pitches without using their voice. Pitch matching on the slider can be directly compared with vocal pitch matching, and results showed that both musicians and nonmusicians were more accurate using the slider than their voices to match target pitches, arguing against a perceptual explanation of singing deficits. Experiment 2 added a self-matching condition and showed that nonmusicians were better at matching their own voice than a synthesized voice timbre, but were still not as accurate as on the slider. This suggests a timbral translation type of mapping error. Experiments 3 and 4 demonstrated that singers do not improve over multiple sung responses, or with the aid of a visual representation of pitch. Experiment 5 showed that listeners were more accurate at perceiving the pitch of the synthesized tones than actual voice tones. The pattern of results across experiments demonstrates multiple possible causes of poor singing, and attributes most of the problem to poor motor control and timbral–translation errors, rather than a purely perceptual deficit, as other studies have suggested.

I’d love to hear an American Idol judge castigate a contestant for poor timbral-translation.

A Good Way to Think About Ideas

We humans like to think we control ideas, but it’s probably more accurate to say we do little more than bury the ideas that are broken on delivery. If you suddenly have an idea for a car made entirely of potato chips, you probably keep it to yourself. But if you have a bad idea about how the President should manage the country, you’ll probably have a few drinks at your next social gathering and let it fly. Human are transmitters, not filters. By analogy, the Internet can detect bad data packets, but not bad ideas. We’re like the Internet.

In this context, I see myself as a collector, combiner, and broadcaster of ideas, both good and bad. I spray ideas into the universe and let the ideas fight for their own survival. With the help of their human hosts, the best ideas will evolve and reproduce, and the worst ideas will go to their resting places on the Internet.

That’s from Scott Adams. The whole post is worth reading.


The Difficulty of Knowing What You Will Know

One of the hard things about learning is that it’s difficult to know when you know will something. That is, when people see a piece of information they’re not great at making judgments about whether or not they will remember it. A new study by researchers at Colorado State attempts to better understand this problem by looking at what can influence judgments about future recall. It turns out that judgments about future recall that involve thinking about contextual details are much more accurate than judgments strictly based on confidence.

In a series of four experiments the researchers placed subjects into two main groups and presented them with a string of words. After each word subjects in the judgment of learning (JOL) group were asked to rate on a scale of 1-3 how confident they were that they would remember the word. Subjects in the judgment of remembering and knowing (JORK) group were asked to predict whether they would know, recollect, or forget the items. Prior to the experiment subjects were taught that there is distinction between remembering and knowing. Remembering involves the recollection of specific details; knowing is memory without any contextual details. As a result, asking subjects in the JORK condition to make a distinction between knowing and recollecting forced them to think about whether a recalled word would be accompanied by contextual details.

After subjects made their JOLs and JORKs they were shown a series of words (some new, some previously studied) and depending on their conditions, they were asked to say whether they knew, recollected, or had studied the words. In each of the different experiments and conditions subjects in the JORK condition were consistently better at predicting what they remembered. In other words, thinking about whether a word would be be recalled with contextual details led to more accurate judgments about whether the word would be recalled.

To try and pull this out of a lab setting, the results essentially say that if you want to know whether you’ll remember a person’s name, you’ll make a better prediction if you also think about whether you will remember their shoe color than if you simply think about how confident you are that you’ll remember their name. Although the study deals with a very specific type of metacognition (not to mention the distinction between conditions is rather subtle), I think you can still add the results to the pile of evidence showing that confidence on its own is usually not the best predictor of accuracy.
McCabe DP, & Soderstrom NC (2011). Recollection-based prospective metamemory judgments are more accurate than those based on confidence: Judgments of remembering and knowing (JORKS). Journal of experimental psychology. General, 140 (4), 605-21 PMID: 21707208