How Brain Fog Can Boost Creativity and Spark Innovation

Studies show how acute brain fog can be used productively.

Posted Oct 22, 2019

Photo by John Westrock on Unsplash.
Source: Photo by John Westrock on Unsplash.

One Sunday afternoon, several years ago, I picked up my copy of Italo Calvino’s story collection, cosmicomics. The words on the page seemed like long-forgotten hieroglyphics, familiar yet as incomputable as if I were staring at a wall of stones and waiting for them to speak. I had been writing seriously and teaching a bit too seriously for 10 years, and that afternoon, I realized a terrifying secret: I could not make sense of the words on the page.

The disconnect had nothing to with Calvino’s magical charm; it had everything to do with my overworked mind and stressed body. After years of firing on all cylinders, my brain had run out of gas, and the fog that our speed-obsessed culture dreads so much rolled in to fill the nooks and crannies of my grey matter. I had hit a wall of mental fatigue.

In scientific terms, brain fog is a web of interrelated symptoms that impairs your ability to think clearly or function properly. But symptoms of what? The root cause of all our cognitive ruts is stress. Whether it derives from work, relationships, diet, or sleep, stress takes a physical toll on the body by catalyzing immune reactions that lead to suboptimal nerve function. 

We tend to think of brain fog as a bad thing because it gets in the way of accomplishing a specific task. But what if our fogginess could actually reveal new avenues for creative work? What if we could use this dream-like cognitive state to our creative advantage?

As research shows, brain fog—the mortal enemy of our productivity-driven culture—may just be the ally our wondrous minds need to breathe new life into our work and spark truly innovative ideas.

The Daydreaming Paradox for Innovation

Hyper-focus strategically leads to selective attention, which means that your mind omits stray thoughts and outside stimuli. Such top-down focus helps you execute and complete tasks, yet by its very nature, it’s not the frame of mind for generating novel, useful, innovative solutions to perplexing problems. It is when our attention wears thin—when our mental inhibitions are lowered, and our brains are less discerning—that truly creative ideas can drift in and take root. Psychologists call this mental state “diffuse mode.”

Diffuse mode is a relaxed state of awareness, or unfocused attention, that allows you to take in more sensory stimuli. Despite stigmatization, this kind of daydreaming can be effective in creative problem-solving. In 2011, psychology professor Marieke Weith studied two groups solving two sets of problems at different times of the day. The first set was analytical, while the second set was composed of insight-based, open-ended questions. Time of day had no effect on the groups’ ability to solve analytical questions. However, when it came to the second set, people performed their best at nonoptimal times of the day, when their brains were a little foggy. 

Other studies have shown that people prompted to let their minds wander on non-task-related activities generated more novel uses for ordinary objects, and college students who were prompted similarly amidst a sustained focus activity were able to detect a hidden pattern within the activity (i.e., fresh pattern-making). The research illustrates that when our brains are least effective at screening our thoughts, our minds are radically open to all possibilities, and we are more likely to gain fresh insights and open our minds to novel solutions.

But not all brain fog is beneficial. There is a distinct difference between deliberate and artless daydreaming.

Deliberate Daydreaming 

According to Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, we spend 47 percent of our waking hours daydreaming. As great artists and inventors throughout history have proven, we can practice deliberate daydreaming to great benefit. It’s a practice that Einstein, Edison, and a slew of other innovators cultivated in order to incubate their ideas, and access part of their awareness that a “get-stuff-done” mentality alone will not achieve. 

There is a more practical benefit to daydreaming, as well. Considering that our greatest life goals exist in the future, those who are better practiced at directing their inner monologues toward their aspirations are more likely to succeed. Daydreamers can delay gratification and practice the patience necessary to achieve their long-term goals. Yet the perception of daydreamers being indolent and unproductive prohibits us from exploring its potential. As a result, we fall victim to default storytelling that usually centers around negative self-talk, regrets from the past, or worries about the future.

As it turns out, the same network of brain regions—the default mode network—stimulated during daydreaming and mind-wandering also lights up when we're ruminating and worrying. The trick then is to retrain your brain to guide your daydreaming toward ideas that pique your curiosity and advance your most meaningful work. But how? 

First, find wonder in your day-to-day life, and let it inspire constructive daydreaming. Wonder is the subtle astonishment of the soul that both disorients and delights with new insight. It challenges our biased ways of seeing ourselves and our world to make room for new possibilities.

Second, learn the nuances of your creative processes and temperament. Finding time to do your most creative work is hard. It’s my contention that you need to understand your own temperament on a continuous basis in order to both find your optimal flow and to learn when to welcome deliberate distractions.

When you hit a wall, step away. Switch to a mindless or (better yet) physical activity that will ease the problem-solving pressure weighing on your brain. Or stimulate other parts of your brain associated with reverie and novel idea generation. Change your thinking to understand that nurturing your creative self is just as productive (if not more so) than churning out “results.”

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The first key to transforming my fatigue into fertile confusion several years ago was yoga. The Shiva-Sutra, one of the few yoga texts to refer directly to wonder, describes a state of being “wonderstruck” with life, awareness, and reality. Called vismayo, this state describes how a person experiences waking life, sleep, dream, and our material reality as one.

Soon after that fateful afternoon with Calvino, I found my way to a yoga studio. The movements, the harnessed breath, the inner focus, each contributed to centering my erratic thoughts and aligning my faculties. The capacity to read clearly and write well returned, only this time with a spacious consciousness I had never experienced.