Why I Stopped Pushing Mindfulness on My Daughter
A generation is being denied their daydreams.
Posted Mar 05, 2018
Here’s an exercise for your kid: Ask him or her to sit down at a table with a paper and pencil and come up with as many uses as possible for a brick. This classic creativity test is named, rather unimaginatively, the Unusual Uses Task. The goal is to come up with the most unique ideas.
The kid has two minutes. Ready, set, go!
How many uses did your child (or you) think up? How innovative are they? Several years ago, a trio of researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara—Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, and Jonathan Schooler—used the Unusual Uses Task in an experiment. First they presented the brick challenge (and others) to their subjects, asking them to come up with their most creative ideas. Everyone scored about the same. Then, between trials, the subjects were divided into four groups. The first group had to undertake memory and reaction-time tasks for 12 minutes, the second got to simply rest for the same amount of time, and a third group had no break. Meanwhile, the fourth group had a soul-crushingly boring 12-minute assignment in which they had to watch a stream of black numbers pass by until they saw one that was colored and an even number, in which case they’d press a button. This activity was so tedious that everyone’s mind wandered after a few minutes.
Citizen scientists, subject your child to a boring activity for 12 minutes. It need not be as dull as a number stream—just any task that requires little focus. Science has found several other surefire ways to induce mind-wandering: Throw a rubber ball at the wall repeatedly, read a book that’s too dense (War and Peace is popular in these studies), listen to a monotone lecture, wash dishes, look out the window, take a shower.
Let them space out. This is the opposite of mindfulness, which we value so much these days. I’m always telling my daughter to be mindful—of what’s in her hands, of whether her chin is over her plate, of where her limbs are in relation to a cup or another person’s body, and of what she needs to do next—What’s next, sweetie? Mindfulness involves purposefulness and moment-by-moment awareness. But it’s quite possibly overvalued in children.
When daydreaming, there’s no next, no logical sequence. Memories, random bits of information, reflections, hypothetical situations, future scenarios, future selves, fantasies, anything—it all moves in an easy, haphazard flow from one to the next. Monkey mind takes over, and it's okay.
And...before they know it, the 12 minutes are up. Now, give the kid the same Unusual Uses challenge as the students in the study. Try again to come up with unique uses for a brick. How many can your child think up now?
In the UC Santa Barbara study, the group that was given a boring task and daydreamed for 12 minutes came up with 41 percent more original ideas for the brick in the second round than did the other groups: It’s soap! It’s a catapult! A stage for bugs! A butt warmer!
So, what was going on in those 12 minutes of boredom? If you asked the thinkers, they might have said they were zoning out. What they didn’t realize is that part of their brain seemed to be still mulling over the challenge and generating new unconscious associations and wild ideas. When the thinkers came back online, the ideas surfaced to conscious awareness. Note that the combustive moment comes only from having a question or a problem in mind, going offline to incubate it, then going back online to think about it again. When the daydreamers were given a new challenge in the second round—"How many ideas can you come up with for a brown bag?"—they were no more creative than the other groups.
You might assume that your child will be more productive when he or she focuses on a problem, but that’s not true for problems that are complex or require creativity. They need to use their powers of unfocused attention. One theory about the daydreamers’ superior creativity is that in their spaced-out state their default networks were still mulling over new ways to repurpose a brick, and so were their “attention networks,” which kept the goal in mind and brought it back to a conscious level. When these two usually opposing networks work in parallel, breakthroughs emerge. The brains of the most creative innovators show more activity in their default-mode network all the time (especially between the frontal and parietal regions). They have more difficulty suppressing the cross talk between default mode regions.
Albert Einstein, incidentally, was a notorious daydreamer.