There is no denying it, whether at work, school, or in everyday life, we often encounter situations where thinking outside-the-box is necessary. It’s also true that sparks of insight can be somewhat hard to pin down. You just never know when creative thought will arise.

Fortunately, new research published in the journal Psychological Science changes this. Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara have uncovered the very conditions that give rise to creative thought. As the researchers point out, there are countless anecdotal accounts of creativity happening when people take a break from whatever they are working on. The question, however, is whether any sort of break sparks creative thought or whether there is a certain type of activity that is best to perform during the break period. The answer, it turns out, is the latter. When stuck on a problem that needs a creative solution, turning your attention to another task that requires just a little bit of focus (but not too much) is the best way to jump start the creative process.

The UC Santa Barbara researchers began by having university undergraduate volunteers solve the Unusual Uses Task (UUT). The goal of the UUT is to generate as many unusual uses for a common object, say a brick, in a few minutes time. People are graded on the number of unique uses they generate and the originality of response – an index of creativity thinking.

Next, volunteers were randomly assigned to one of three incubation conditions where, during a 12 minute break period, they did something unrelated to the UUT. People either (1) performed a demanding memory task requiring them to juggle multiple items in their head at once – demanding group; (2) did an undemanding task where they were simply asked to respond to a signal that popped up on the computer screen every so often – undemanding group; or (3) sat and rested – rest group. Then everyone tried their hand at the UUT again. A fourth group (no break group) went straight into the second round of the Unusual Uses Task.

So what did the researchers find? Volunteers in the undemanding group showed a significant improvement in their ability to generate new uses for the objects from their first to second UUT attempt – improving in their generation by about 40%. In contrast, people the demanding group, the rest and no rest groups showed no improvement in their creative thinking.

But, here’s where the results get really interesting. Everyone filled out a self-report measure of mind wandering during the incubation period. The researchers wanted to know how often volunteers engaged in thoughts unrelated to the creativity task, like personal worries or future and past events. And, what they found was that people’s thoughts were much more likely to wonder off-task when they were doing something that required just a little bit of focus (this means that the minds of folks in the undemanding group wandered the most). Moreover, the more people had a propensity to mind wander in general, the more creative they were.

The legendary Greek philosopher, Archimedes, may have been the first to demonstrate the power of taking a break. Asked to determine whether or not a new crown made for the King was solid gold, Archimedes was stumped. He couldn’t melt down the crown or break it open to determine its contents because that would destroy it. And because the crown was in the irregular shape of a laurel wreath, there was no object of a similar shape to which to compare it. Interestingly, as legend goes, Archimedes didn’t come up with the answer until he stepped back from his task and stopped thinking about it altogether. As Archimedes was getting into the bath one day, he noticed that the level of water rose as he got in. He figured out that he could use the amount of water displaced by an object (either himself or the crown) to determine its volume and, with a little math, it’s density (whether the crown had dense gold or a less-dense silver inside). According to tradition, Archimedes was so excited by his “ah-hah” moment that he forgot to get dressed after he got out of the bath and ran through the streets naked yelling, “Eureka!”

Now we know that it’s not just any break that gets our creative juices flowing. Rather, when we are stuck on a problem and need an outside-the-box solution, turning to an activity that engages our attention just slightly so that mind wandering is maximized is the answer. Maybe it’s a walk in the woods (as I have blogged about before), surfing the sports scores, or even a bath that does it. Regardless, uncovering the conditions under which our most creative ideas will arise can help us function at our best.

For more on how to think at your best, check out my book Choke!

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Baird et al. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science.

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