Process is typically the most challenging habit for writers to dedicate time to. Creative play for the sake of play seems so frivolous and non-productive. But before you ditch Process for the sake of something “more valuable,” consider my latest intel on how play pays off: Process leads to mind-wandering, aka daydreaming, which in turns increases creativity.
My last post introduced Daniel Levitin’s concept of two-part attentional system: focused attention and mind-wandering. We’ve always assumed that focused attention is how we solve problems, but it’s only half the story.
It turns out that despite what your grade school teachers might have told you, staring out the window and letting your mind wander is NOT a sign of mental laziness. It is an essential part of how your brain works.
Daydreaming is anything but mental idleness. Neurologist Marcus Raichle asked test subjects in an fMRI machine to not think about anything when they were not performing specific tasks that were the focus of his research. He assumed brain activity would drop and give him a baseline measure, but instead it soared.
As Raichle observed, “When you don’t use a muscle, that muscle isn’t doing much. But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing, it’s really doing a tremendous amount.” Because the brain is energy-efficient, Raichle concluded the increased neural activity meant something significant was happening. When he set out to find what, he realized people were daydreaming.
In Imagine, Jonah Lehrer describes Raichel’s research: “[when daydreaming] there is a particularly elaborate electrical conversation between the front and back parts of the brain… These cortical areas don’t normally interact directly; they have different functions and are part of distinct neural pathways. It’s not until we start to daydream that they being to work closely together.”
It’s seems paradoxical, but despite the extra oxygen and glucose mind-wandering requires to fuel increased neural activity, it simultaneously restores mental energy.
In an interview with Mother Jones, Daniel Levitin said: “That daydreaming mode…turns out to be restorative. It’s like hitting the reset button in your brain. And you don’t get in that daydreaming mode typically by texting and Facebooking. You get in it by disengaging.”
In addition to refreshing the brain, mind-wandering causes disparate parts of the brain interact in a more fluid, non-linear fashion that allows the brain to make the new connections and associations that are the heart of creativity.
Levitin observes, “The history of science and culture is filled with stories of how many of the greatest scientific and artistic discoveries occurred while the creator was not thinking about what he was working on—not consciously anyway—the daydreaming mode solved the problem for him, and the answer appeared suddenly as a stroke of insight.”
Daydreaming inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein, revealed a theory of relativity to Albert Einstein and prompted August Kekule to recognize that benzene’s structure is circular.
What have you discovered or gained insight to while doing Process? Where might Process lead you next?