September 5, 2012 2 Comments
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