“Let Your Mind Wander” to Boost Your Creativity
A wandering mind leads to new and creative ideas.
Posted December 13, 2017
[Note: This post is part of my blog series called "The Writer's Laboratory." See my introductory post for more information]
Each day this week I’m posting simple tips you can use to boost your creativity. Yesterday’s post suggested night dreaming is good for boosting creativity, but so is daydreaming. The more technical term for this childlike experience is “mind wandering,” which refers to times when your mind strays from your current situation in favor of unrelated thoughts. So just like dreaming, mind wandering occurs because your inner rider is relaxing its reigns and letting your inner mule decide your destination
Mind wandering is incredibly common—one study found it consumed 47 percent of our waking hours—and happens during nearly every activity (interestingly, sex was the activity least likely to involve mind wandering). Studies on mind wandering mimic that of the sleep research mentioned above. When people are given a problem to solve and then given a break in which their mind could wander, they were more likely to solve the problem creatively. However, these studies suggest that mind wandering doesn’t boost creativity in general, so you need to be thinking about the problem you are trying to solve before the mind wandering occurs.
Given that our mind wanders so often anyway, it may seem that you don’t even need to encourage it. But remember that mind wandering is only beneficial when it occurs during that time when your mind is trying to solve the solution. So its good to learn some mind-wandering techniques so you can use this procedure strategically.
One way to relax your inner rider’s hold on your mind is to generate ideas during your non-optimal time of day. This means that if you are a morning person, consider thinking about ideas in the evening. And if you are a night owl, try mulling your ideas over your morning cup of coffee. This advice seems counterintuitive—we usually think our brain works better during optimal times when it is most alert—but research shows this isn’t always the case. Although analytical thinking (e.g., math problems) may be better during people’s optimal times, research shows creativity is higher during people’s non-optimal times.
Another, perhaps less advisable way, to relax your inner rider is through alcohol. For as long as writers and artists have been around, they’ve been using alcohol (or other mind-altering substances) to uncork their muse. From Beethoven and Picasso to Twain, Hemingway, and Poe—the list goes on and on (and on). Stephen King admits his drinking got so bad during the 1980s that he doesn’t even remember writing Cujo. And he admits that his book, The Shining, may have been his unconscious’ mind telling him he was an alcoholic father long before his conscious mind was willing to admit it (suggesting your inner mule may sometimes act like a real ass, but it often knows more about yourself than you do!). So a word of advice here: It is one thing to use a small amount of alcohol to boost creativity. It is another matter entirely to succumb to alcoholism. So how much is enough? A research study found that a to a blood content level of just .075 was enough to improve people’s creativity (that’s roughly equivalent to two glasses of wine or two beers).
Perhaps the healthiest way to increase mind-wandering is through mindfulness meditation (specifically the type called “open-monitoring meditation”). In mindfulness mediation, you first focus on opening your breath, then opening your mind to allow any thoughts of sensations to occur. The key is that these thoughts are allowed to pass through your mind without judgment, like clouds floating across the sky (for an excellent beginner’s tutorial by Sharon Salzberg, check out this video). A study conducted in the Netherlands found that one 45-minute session of open-monitoring meditation increased the number of creative responses given by 40 percent, and it increased the originality of those responses by 400 percent! Plus, meditation has all sorts of other benefits for both your mind and body, so why not kill two birds with one stone?
Check back tomorrow for another tip on how to generate creative ideas! And for more information on The Writer’s Laboratory blog, with simple tips on how to use psychological research to improve your writing, visit www.melissaburkley.com