When 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.”
It 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
Creativity 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.