How to Increase Your Chances of Coincidental Discoveries

New research suggests that coincidence is less mysterious than we think

Posted Nov 26, 2017

Source: fcscafeine/iStockphoto

What do corn flakes, superglue, Viagra, popsicles, ice-cream cones, steel and Play-Doh have in common?  They were all discovered by accident! Accidental discoveries have been documented since time immemorial, and they are no less frequent today. In fact, in 1990, Kevin Dunbar observed that 75 percent of the findings in four Stanford labs were unexpected. These "accidental" findings may appear to be purely coincidental, but recent research indicates that there may in fact be a hidden intelligence that leads some people to discover more things than others. And this intelligence is probably within your reach too.

Intuition and insight: Just prior to a discovery, many people report having an intuition— a gut feeling that they may be onto something.  And as they proceed, guided by this gut feeling, they may develop an insight. Although they are similar, intuition and insight are not identical. Intuition is a gradual unfolding of the truth, whereas insight comes out of the blue and is sudden. 

Pre-intuition: The human brain is wired to have hunches without a clear idea that it is onto something.  But even prior to the hunch congealing in the brain, a certain interesting mind state must arise. I call this stable mind wandering

Stable mind wanderingOne of the brain networks that must activate for you to eventually have a hunch is called the default mode network (DMN). Being the brain's "unfocus" network, this collection of brain regions usually comes online when your mind is wandering. When it does, it darts about, connecting puzzle pieces from different parts of the brain. Sometimes, you need a few puzzle pieces for an intuition to form. And when your brain is looking for these pieces, it is not as random as you think. Furthermore, you can help it along too.

Engage in a stable behavior: To really engage this network, a curious combination of things needs to happen. You need to also have some kind of stable behavior going on while your mind is wandering. That's what Stanford postdoctoral researcher Aaron Kucyi and his colleagues found when they examined the brains of people whose minds were wandering. Intense mind wandering must be combined with stable behavior to activate the DMN.

At first glance, this may seem odd.  Why would an unfocus network that activates when your mind wanders, activate even more when your behavior is stable across a period of time? Isn't mind wandering inherently unstable? Well, it is, but that's not when your brain is at its best. You have to immerse yourself in this contradiction, anchoring your mind on an activity and then letting it go.

If you're wondering how this might translate in your everyday life, consider a study by researcher Benjamin Baird and his colleagues that demonstrated that you are more creative when your mind wanders off task, but only when you are engaged in something that is undemanding. Doing nothing or being fully engaged does not help as much.

So, to get started on this process of stable mind wandering, first choose an activity that is not so demanding but will keep your mind stable. Knitting, walking, or gardening would be a good start. Then, prepare to let your mind off its leash (still metaphorically tied to a post), as you start to fantasize about something playful or wishful—something that you truly enjoy.

Trust your brain-when your mind wanders, it tags significant clues and uses each clue to determine the next step: When your mind wanders, it is not necessarily lost. It's off its leash, but it can know where it is going. Like a dog on a long leash, it darts forward in search of what it "smells". And when researchers looked at how brains can find anything without a firm direction, they realize that it is not actually directionless.  Though you may not be aware of why your mind is wandering onto random subjects, the "salience" network in the brain—a collection of brain regions that denotes significance or clues—is often in contact with the unfocus network too. It tags the clues and uses them as a guide for the next step forward.

Trust your brain because it is also planning as it wanders-Lose yourself: Other studies have confirmed that mind wandering seems to evoke a cooperation between the daydreaming and planning circuits in your brain. And to make things even more intriguing, the unfocus network activates most when you are not aware that you are mind wandering. That is, you have to be truly lost in thought.

If for a moment, the idea of being unaware and also on track seems contradictory to you, consider any athlete "in the zone". Roger Federer darting back and forth from the baseline to the net—Michael Jordan's sprint to dunk a ball into a basket—Michelle Kwan launching into a triple toe loop on ice—all of these people reach their peak when they allow their brains to be on autopilot, relying on the spontaneity of extensive experience to glow in their moment of surrender.

Letting go is often the most difficult part, but as you keep practicing, you will learn to trust your wandering mind. It will eventually come back to you when you need it for more focused tasks. But to activate your intuition and insight, you have to let it go.

Coincidences then, are sudden synchronies that occur when your daydreaming brain wanders around. But to ensure that this happens, you must be engaged in a stable activity, feel a sense of trust in yourself, and also stop observing yourself. When you do, the likelihood of sudden realizations will blossom. Start by building in 15 minutes in your day to practice this. Do this every day for a month and see if it makes a difference.

To learn more about the nitty gritty of mind wandering and how you can stimulate your creative and intuitive brain, get a copy of my most recent book, "Tinker Dabble Doodle Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind (Ballantine Books, 2017)"