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Mind Wandering Enhances Creative Problem Solving

Are you obsessing or creative problem solving?

Lately I've been accused of "obsessing" about a pesky financial problem. Not a gigantic problem, but a source of ongoing irritation and minor conflict. At any rate, this financial quandary got into my mind, and I found myself waking up thinking about it, thinking about it while auto-piloting through my morning get-ready-for-work routine, and defaulting to it during random periods of mind wandering. It's common to default to thoughts that carry the most emotional punch, and this one was pulling anger triggers.

Now it's not really fun to stew on things that make you angry or that fall into the problem category but if it doesn't slip overboard into the OCD compartment, then it does serve a purpose. In this case, I got my "aha" moment in the shower. In fact the solution was so embarrassingly obvious that I'm amazed I didn't see it before. But that's what happens when your mind is locked in tunnel vision when trying to brainstorm solutions. It doesn't have full-range access to your memory banks where all kinds of information resides. Think of these snippets of memory and knowledge as long-forgotten documents stored on the Z drive of your computer. You may not remember what's there or where you saved it, but that info stills exists and a good computer program can find it.

Well, your mind-wandering capacity is like that computer program--it can get to solutions that your conscious mind just can't see.

A 2009 University of British Columbia study confirmed that while daydreaming, the brain recruits complex regions of the brain, including the "executive network," which is associated with complex problem solving and which, as the "executive" moniker indicates, is the command center of the brain. Prior to this study, it was thought that the executive network was the exclusive problem-solving region and that mind wandering and daydreaming did not involve the "executive network." But this study debunked that theory.

"This is a surprising finding, that these two brain networks are activated in parallel," said the study's lead researcher Kalina Christoff. "Until now, scientists have thought they operated on an either-or basis--when one was activated, the other was thought to be dormant."

My particular answer cropped up after a significant amount of research and study, so it didn't magically appear out of the blue. It was a culmination of work I'd been doing. I was just able to suddenly see the answer, which appeared like a snapshot image in my mind. Sort of like House receives his moment of insight in the TV show of the same name.

My little moment was just that--fairly insignificant. But there's a lot of anecdotal evidence, especially in the field of science, in which scientists after long periods of toil were finally rewarded with Eureka moments: Henri Poincare gained his key insight into Fuchsian functions (a theory of geometry) while boarding a bus. Friedrich Kekule suddenly understood the structure of a benzene moleclue while watching the curling smoke rings of a fire. I'm sure friends and relatives thought they were "obsessed," and maybe they were, but that's also how they got their answers: working on a problem, stewing on it, and then seeing the light in an unexpected moment. This kind of lost-in-thought thinking is where we get the term "absent minded." A misnomer as the person isn't absent from his or her mind, but deeply within it.

Obsessing about life's mundane problems is not as fun as obsessing about the novel you want to write or a scientific breakthrough or the details of a great vacation. But it can pay off in big ways and in small. Sometimes you have to put a problem on your priority list, let it take over a bit, and trust that the answer will bubble up when you least expect it.

©Amy Fries
Photo: © Sergey Tumanov
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