Peter D. Kennett via Wikimedia Commons
Exploring the reefs off Pulau.
Source: Peter D. Kennett via Wikimedia Commons

Congratulations! You’ve just won a prize: $2,000 to go on a weekend trip for two. There is a catch, though. You need to decide where you want to go, and who would go with you, in just one hour.

A simple answer might be to travel to the place you went last year for a short time. You know a perfect spot to stay, you know your way around well, and the scenery, climate, and the food were superb.

But wait! This is an unprecedented opportunity for you to take a leap in a different, never-before-explored direction. It beckons you with unexpected and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and sensations.

What to do?

Should we “dwell” or should we “roam”?

Even though you’ve never previously faced this particular—and imaginary—scenario, you’ve encountered many like it in different guises. We face this dilemma all of the time. We regularly have to “scout out” different options, within time and financial or other limits, choosing whether to delve more deeply into what we already know or instead to jump across into unfamiliar territory.  

Should we take the time to explore more possibilities, or should we stop where we are, and go with the best that we have found so far? Should we “dwell” or should we “roam”? This is the classic “exploration versus exploitation” dilemma or the “to roam versus to dwell” tension.   

Dwelling—staying close to what we already know or can do, adjusting, refining, or tweaking it, to make it even better, or specializing deeper and deeper—brings with it many rewards. Dwelling can give us greater predictability, increased efficiency, and a higher likelihood of success because we can readily draw on our prior experiences and familiarity with the task or context to help us. 

Roaming, though—striking out into new and unknown territories, doing what we’ve never done before, innovating as we go—offers us the possibility of larger but riskier (less certain) discoveries and accompanying rewards. 

The deep tension between roaming vs. dwelling, going vs. staying, is ever-present in our lives. It pops up, again and again, in ways small and large. It is, as we show in Innovating Minds: Rethinking Creativity to Inspire Change, an inescapably rich aspect of the creative process. If we are always roaming we have no time to “harvest” what we have (so far) found, learned, and made. But if we are always dwelling, we miss out on promising newness, and the “harvest” that’s at hand could get scarce and stale. We need both stability (keeping the same goals in mind) and flexibility (changing or updating our goals). Neither alone suffices.

Your questing brain

So what leads us, at any specific time, to opt to stay (dwell) or rather to go (roam)? 

This question is an intense focus of research spanning many discipline—from neuroscience to computer science, from ecology to public policy.  This wide-ranging investigation has begun to uncover some important clues. 

In the brain, many different neural circuits, connecting the frontal cortex, the hippocampus, and regions deep inside the brain in the striatum, collaboratively act to guide and initiate our search. 

These collaborative interactions across neural circuits occur when we are searching in internal mental space, among the internal representations of ideas, words, and memories. These collaborative interactions equally occur when we are searching in the external world, in physical or symbolic spaces, whether we are searching for objects (our keys), people (the face of a friend in a crowd), or information (an online review of a book, movie, or restaurant).  

Activity in these neural circuits is also influenced by several different neuromodulators (such as dopamine). Neuromodulators exert their effects for both shorter time periods and across comparatively longer periods of time. They can tip us in the direction of either flexibility, increasing the likelihood that we will change our goals. Or they can tip us toward stability, helping us to continue to maintain our current focus.

Searching for hidden treasure

Imagine that you're asked to find on a computer screen some "hidden treasure." The treasure might be clustered in a few places or it might be spread out and thinly scattered in different spots across the whole screen. 

Diagram schematically based on Hills et al. (2010, Figure 2).
Clustered and diffuse “hidden treasure.” 
Source: Diagram schematically based on Hills et al. (2010, Figure 2).

Imagine further that, after searching for the hidden treasure, you are next asked to perform an anagram task. 

In the anagram task, you are told that you will be given different sets of six letters, such as NSBDOE or SULMPA. Each set will have four consonants and two vowels.  You are challenged to quickly come up with 30 English words each containing four or more letters. For NSBDOE, then, you might generate NOSE or SEND. Plural words and proper names are not allowed. Each time you choose to move from one six-letter set to a different one, you must wait 15 seconds before the next letter set is shown.  You are encouraged not to stay too long or too short in any given letter set.

How would you perform this anagram task? How long would you stay with the current letter set, harvesting what you have, before asking for the next one, with its accompanying “cost” of 15 seconds transition time? Do you think your choices of when to move on would be influenced by the earlier hidden treasure search task?

Researchers who performed this experiment found that participants who had discovered clusters or clumps of treasure in the visual spatial task stayed with each letter set longer. In contrast, participants who had found thinly spread out hidden treasure were quicker to abandon a letter set, and move on to the next one. This “carryover” effect was especially strong for the first few letter sets that participants were given, but gradually wore off as they continued to perform the anagram task.

These and other experiments show that our environments, and our previous actions, can prime whether we are likely to dwell or to roam. What you've done in a previous situation, and especially the types of “active searching” you’ve been doing, can spontaneously “carry forward” to where you are now, changing how and where you look for insights and information. 

Seeking inside and outside

What does all this mean? Intriguingly, it seems patterns of seeking outside in the external environment can shape patterns of seeking inside, in our mental idea landscapes. The observation that there was a carryover effect despite the many differences between the two tasks suggests that the cognitive and biological processes that lead us to “dwell” versus “roam” may be partially shared across searching outside and in our minds.   

Just knowing about this tradeoff can be helpful. It’s also helpful to realize that there’s not always a single correct answer or a one-time decision.  

How may your environment subtly be tilting you in one direction, or another? Do you find yourself predominantly “dwelling” (refining familiar terrain and ideas), or mainly “roaming” (ever reaching toward new terrain and possibilities) in particular contexts or with particular people? What things tend to push you in one direction or another: excessive time pressure, recent success, over-eagerness, blind habit?

Finding your path

If we need to both dwell and roam might it help to think of alternating between them, giving each their due? Although the two are “in tension” it is possible that, by periodically switching and allowing neither to drop out of our repertoire for too long we may better optimize our creative payoff. Through allowing both dwelling and roaming a share we may find our best pathway. 

Some questions to explore (and dwell upon):

  • What’s your default scouting style? Are you inclined to be a dweller or a roamer?  Is it the same for different situations in your life? 
  • Are you jumping when you should be staying, or staying when you should be jumping? How do you know? Are you stuck in scouting the same sparse space repeatedly, or are you distractedly jumping again and again—never identifying the gems that you’d find close at hand if only you’d stay long enough to see them?
  • Do you notice when your scouting strategy is a good fit versus a poor fit to your particular situation? How could you improve your attunement to signs that it’s a good time to dwell rather than roam, or vice versa?
  • Can you think of ways that the dual roles of dwelling and roaming (of exploitation and exploration) can also apply to the creative efforts of teams and organizations? 

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