Skip to main content

The Creativity of the Wandering Mind

New research suggests engaging in simple tasks that allow the mind to wander facilitates creative thinking.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Do you have a numbingly dull job, one so monotonous that you frequently find your mind wandering? Well, congratulations: without realizing it, you have boosted your creative potential.

Mindless tasks that allow our thoughts to roam can be catalysts for innovation. That’s the conclusion of a research team led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler of the University of California, Santa Barbara’s META Lab (which focuses on Memory, Emotion, Thought and Awareness).

Their research, published in the journal Psychological Science, suggests putting a difficult problem in the back of your mind won’t, by itself, lead to creative thinking. The key seems to be performing some simple chore while it’s lodged there.

Baird and his colleagues describe an experiment featuring 135 people, ages 19 to 35. Their creativity was measured by performance on the classic Unusual Uses Task, in which each participant is given two minutes to come up with as many uses as possible for a specific item, such as a brick. Besides the sheer number of responses, their answers are judged on originality, flexibility, and level of detail.

All the participants began by tackling two such problems. One-quarter of them then spent 12 minutes on an intellectually demanding task, which demanded constant attention. Another quarter spent that same amount of time on an undemanding task, which only required them to provide “infrequent responses.” Another quarter was instructed to rest for 12 minutes, while the rest went directly to the next task without a break.

All then tackled four additional rounds of the Unusual Uses Task. Two were repeats of the tests they performed earlier, and two featured objects that were new to them.

Those who had performed the undemanding task in the interim had significantly higher scores than those in any of the other categories (including the people who had simply rested for 12 minutes). However, this jump in creativity occurred only for the items they were tackling for a second time. They did not score any better than the others when presented with a new object.

This suggests their success in coming up with creative solutions “resulted from an incubation process” which was “characterized by high levels of mind wandering,” the researchers write. Having had a chance to mull over the first two objects they were presented with (thanks to the relatively mindless task they performed in the interim), they came up with more creative ideas when given the opportunity to revisit them.

The researchers can’t be sure why, but they point to neuroimaging studies that suggest that, while the mind is wandering, several different brain networks interact. They speculate that this “relatively rare” state may enhance creative thinking.

But why did those stuck with a boring task do better than those who had simply rested for 12 minutes? It’s impossible to say for certain, but being free to think about anything, their minds presumably drifted somewhere else entirely—perhaps to a pleasant (or challenging) subject that occupied their entire attention.

So if you’re an aspiring songwriter or a poet with a day job waiting tables, you may be in luck. So long as the restaurant isn’t ridiculously busy, you have placed yourself in a situation that facilitates creative thinking. If you’re stuck on a stanza before starting a shift, don’t fret; the break may be just what your brain needs.