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Unplug, Get Bored, Create

How spacing out can unlock your creativity. By Manoush Zomorodi.

Guest Post by Manoush Zomorodi.

The neuroscience age, in which we are only beginning to really get to know our brains, is redefining boredom all over again in exciting and positive new ways.

“When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,”says Dr. Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good. “So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going off someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.” Totally awesome. Boredom is the gateway to mind-wandering, which helps our brains create new connections that can solve anything from planning dinner to a breakthrough in combating global warming.

Courtesy Manoush Zomorodi
Source: Courtesy Manoush Zomorodi

Researchers have only recently begun to understand the phenomenon of mind-wandering, the activity our brains engage in when we’re doing something boring, or doing nothing at all. Most of the studies on the neuroscience of daydreaming have only been done within the past ten years. With modern brain-imaging technology, discoveries are emerging every day about what our brains are doing not only when we are deeply engaged in an activity but also when we space out. When we’re consciously doing things we’re using the “executive attention network,” the parts of the brain that control and inhibit our attention.

As neuroscientist Marcus Raichle put it, “The attention network makes it possible for us to relate directly to the world around us, i.e., here and now.” By contrast, when our minds wander, we activate a part of our brain called the “default mode network,” which was discovered by Raichle. The default mode, a term also coined by Raichle, is used to describe the brain “at rest”; that is, when we’re not focused on an external, goal-oriented task. So, contrary to the popular view, when we space out, our minds aren’t switched off. “Scientifically, daydreaming is an interesting phenomenon because it speaks to the capacity that people have to create thought in a pure way rather than thought happening when it’s a response to events in the outside world,” said Jonathan Smallwood, who has studied mind-wandering since the beginning of his career in neuroscience, twenty years ago.

The crucial nature of daydreaming became obvious to Smallwood almost as soon as he began to study it. Spacing out is so important to us as a species that “it could be at the crux of what makes humans different from less complicated animals.” It is involved in a wide variety of skills, from creativity to projecting into the future. Smallwood uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to explore what neural changes occur when test subjects lie in a scanner and do nothing but stare at a fixed image. It turns out that in the default mode, we’re still tapping about 95 percent of the energy we use when our brains are engaged in hard-core, focused thinking.

The areas of the brain that make up the default mode network—the medial temporal lobe, the medial prefrontal cortex, and the posterior cingulate cortex—are turned off when we engage in attention-demanding tasks. But they are very active in autobiographical memory (our personal archive of life experiences); theory of mind (essentially, our ability to imagine what others are thinking and feeling); and self- referential processing (basically, crafting a coherent sense of self). When we lose focus on the outside world and drift inward, we’re not shutting down. We’re tapping into a vast trove of memories, imagining future possibilities, dissecting our interactions with other people, and reflecting on who we are.

It feels like we are wasting time when we wait for the longest red light in the world to turn green, but the brain is putting ideas and events into perspective. This gets to the heart of why mind-wandering or daydreaming is different from other forms of cognition. Rather than experiencing, organizing, and understanding things based on how they come to us from the outside world, we do it from within our own cognitive system. That allows for reflection and the ability for greater understanding after the heat of the moment. Consider an argument with your spouse: In the heat of the moment, it’s hard to be objective or see things from their perspective. Anger and adrenaline, as well as the physical and emotional presence of another human being, get in the way of contemplation. But in the shower or on a drive the next day, as you daydream and you re-live the argument, your thoughts become more nuanced. Thinking in a different way about a personal interaction, rather than the way you did when you encountered it in the real world, is a profound form of creativity spurred on by mind-wandering.

There are obviously different ways to daydream or mind-wander—and not all of them are productive or positive. In his seminal book The Inner World of Daydreaming, psychologist Jerome L. Singer, who has been studying mind-wandering for more than fifty years, identifies three different styles of daydreaming. People with poor attention control are anxious, easily distracted, and have difficulty concentrating, even on their daydreams. When our mind-wandering is dysphoric, our thoughts drift to unproductive and negative places. While ruminating on painful experiences or dwelling on the past is definitely a very real by-product of daydreaming, research by Smallwood and others has shown that, when given time for self-reflection, most people tend toward “prospective bias” or thinking about the future. Combine this prospective bias with the flip side of dysphoric daydreaming, the positive-constructive kind, and our thoughts begin veer toward the imaginative.

That kind of thinking helps us come up with new solutions when we’re stuck on a problem, personal, professional, or otherwise. We get excited about the possibilities that our brain seems to conjure up seemingly out of nowhere, like magic. Although boredom is usually thought of as the ultimate waste of time, it is, in fact, a gateway to mind wandering and can lead to some of our most productive and creative thoughts.

Manoush Zomorodi is the host of WNYC's "Note to Self."

From Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. Copyright (c) 2017 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press.