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Creativity coach, writing and creative process instructor, speaker, author of Around the Writer's Block: Using Brain Science to Write the Way You Want (Penguin/Tarcher 2012) and Dancing in the Dragon's Den (Red Wheel Weiser), Teaching Artist at the Loft Literary Center.

Why Writers Need Free-Range Brains

mind wander canstockphoto13928121When was the last time you left your mind wander free? Ignored your work projects and To Do list? Unplugged from social media, stepped away from your computer, phone, tablet and TV and even stopped reading? Simply let your eyes take in what’s in front of you and let ideas bob to the surface and float away?

For some of us, it’s been so long that we get a little squeamish at the mere idea of not having some external thing direct our attention. We’re like city folk in the woods, so accustomed to noise and activity, we find the stillness unsettling.

Yet, the research is clear that the brain needs downtime. The human brain needs time in a state that is not sleep, but not constant activity and concentration either. Writers and other artists in particular need time for our brains to range freely.

Loose Brain, Focused Brain

The brain has two different attention states: mind-wandering and focused-attention. Daniel Levitin, professor of psychology and behavioral neuroscience at McGill University and author of The Organized Mind, describes mind-wandering:

“This distinctive and special brain state is marked by the flow of connections among disparate ideas and thoughts, and a relative lack of barriers between senses and concepts. It also can lead to greater creativity and solutions to problems that seemed unsolvable. Its discovery – a special brain network that supports a more fluid and nonlinear mode of thinking – was one of the biggest neuroscientific discoveries in the last twenty years.”

info-overload-21-300x300It is ironic that the last twenty years has also seen a decline in our availability to this creative brain state. Back in the day, before cell phones and the internet became omnipresent, we didn’t have devices constantly demanding our attention and allowed our minds to wander more often. We weren’t expected to be available and productive 24/7.

We actually did nothing *gasp* when we stood in line at the post office or store. We didn’t have  cell phones to send/receive email or play games with or discover a new app on. Sometimes we chatted to the person next to us in line. And we stood in line more because we didn’t shop online.

It is also ironic that electronic distractions and our desire to be constantly engaged interferes with the focused mode of thinking as much as it does mind-wandering.

Creativity Needs Both Brain States

brain both sides canstockphoto16123448Creativity requires shifting from intense focus concentrated on solving a problem to intervals of mind-wandering (aka incubating). Most creative breakthroughs come when we stop trying – in the shower, driving, watching a fire, daydreaming. Of course those eureka moments can’t arrive if you don’t also invest time and attention on researching the problem and striving for solutions.

Nearly constant stimulus from electronic devices, a flood of email and social media, movies and TV that can be streamed at anytime and a flood of information from media makes it harder to achieve either focused-attention or mind-wandering.

I’m not being a luddite. I not suggesting we toss our phones/tablets/computers and unplug forever. I see the advantages of our electronic devices. I also see the costs of overusing our devices. One of those costs is that your brain never wanders. Creative people need free range brains.

sunsetAnd now if you’ll excuse me, my brain is wandering as I gaze out the window at how the trees in our park are silhouetted against the mauve sky and midnight blue clouds.

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9 Comments on “Why Writers Need Free-Range Brains”

  1. Tui Snider (@TuiSnider) November 17, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Yes! Few people understand the importance of spacing out! I guess we get it drilled out of us in school, then feel guilty when we indulge later in life. And by “we,” I mean me! ;p

    Your post is quite timely, because I recently rearranged my writing area so that I can see out into the backyard and watch birds. I’ve also got an aquarium to the right of me and a cat bed to the left of me.

    I’ve gotta say, and added benefit to staring out the window is that the eye strain headaches I’d been having quite regularly have disappeared!

    ~Tui, a.k.a. @TuiSnider dropping by from #MondayBlogs


    • rosannebane November 18, 2014 at 1:01 pm #

      Thanks Tui! Oh the power of old thinking (“you should always pay attention”)… Your office sounds delightful. I love the view of our snow-covered park out of my office window.


  2. Catherine Brennan November 17, 2014 at 10:44 am #

    Thank you, Roseanne. I know my brain/mind need to wander, and now I have confirmation.


    • rosannebane November 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

      You’re welcome Catherine. Please spread the word… the more of us who value mind-wandering, the freer we will all be to enjoy it.


  3. Joel D Canfield November 13, 2014 at 11:36 pm #

    Good reminder. I find myself pulling out the phone or tablet every time I’m feeling impatient. I’ve got creating to do; I don’t have time for impatience.


    • rosannebane November 14, 2014 at 1:28 pm #

      I love the phrase “I’ve got creating to do; I don’t have time for impatience.” Thanks Joel.



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