A New (and Deeper) Perspective on Creativity

New research helps explain why unfocus is essential for creativity.

Posted May 06, 2017

When it comes to being creative, you've probably heard many suggestions: "you've just got to let go," "surrender to the process," "go with your gut." All of these recommendations are frustratingly abstract and notoriously difficult to achieve. What do they mean? And how do you execute them?


At the core of each of these processes is a mindset shift—one that requires going from focus to unfocus. In fact, your brain is wired to do just this, and often does so on its own.


Our minds wander away from focus for 46.9% of our waking hours. We are anything but happy about this. And we should not be. According to Jerome Singer, who has studied mind-wandering for decades, slipping into a daydream, or guiltily rehashing the prior day's indiscretions will not stimulate your creativity. But there is one kind of daydreaming that will help—positive constructive daydreaming (PCD).


PCD doesn't have to be planned, but if you do plan it, you will be less likely to feel like you are slipping off a cliff of focus. To make it work well, you should start PCD when you are engaged in a low-key activity. You should not be doing something "too engaging" or "not engaging at all." Gardening, knitting or casually surfing the net might all make the cut, as long as they are not stressful. Simultaneously, withdraw your attention from the outside world, and start to let your attention wander within. To get started, use playful or wishful imagery—maybe running through the woods with your dog, or swimming on vacation. Then, once you get the story started with this image, let your mind wander. 


Mind wandering per se is not a new method for creativity. It's been known for a long time. But what is relatively new is the finding that when PCD activates the brain's unfocus network, in addition to making associations across the brain, it also turns on the brain's representations of the "self." If at first this sounds irrelevant, think again.  

When you want to be creative, you may think it sounds delightful, but your brain actually has another response. Your brain is more likely to categorize "creativity" in the same column as words like "vomit" or "agony." That's what management professor Jennifer Mueller and her colleagues found in 2010 when they looked at the brain's unconscious response. Your journey into your creativity can get a little unruly to say the least. In physical exercise, when lifting weights feels unstable, it helps to be connected to your core. Similarly, when things are mentally challenging, it helps to have your psychological core engaged. This happens when you activate the unfocus circuit.

Called the default mode network (DMN), we used to think of this unfocus circuit as a Do Mostly Nothing circuit. Yet, calling on more parts of yourself gives you the core psychological strength you need to navigate the chaotic journey into creativity. Also, when you are creative, you are expressing an internal vision.


Other techniques can also activate the creativity circuit. For example, consistent physical activity, and napping for 90 minutes, can increase creativity too.

Thus, adding focus to a focused day will give you just the cognitive rhythm you want. All three techniques activate the unfocus circuit, and you can use them strategically (e.g. 15 minutes daily) to build the brain networks supporting creativity into your day.


Pillay S. (2017). Tinker, Dabble, Doodle,Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind. New York, N.Y. Ballantine Books.