In her creative work, writer Virginia Woolf’s characters explore the streets of London and the thoughts that can bloom as one moves through a city. Woolf appreciated walks too, and wrote in her diary that these wanderings gave her “space to spread my mind out.” The creative energy generated by city strolls gave her the sense of “being on the highest crew of the biggest wave, right in the centre & swim of things.”
New research helps to explain the mechanics driving this mindset. Walking on a busy street can inspire fresh ideas because it somewhat constrains you as a result of the context — you have to walk a certain way — but not so much that spontaneous thought is inhibited. The study suggests the way to take advantage of the creative potential of mind-wandering is to participate in a moderately engaging task, like a walk around the block.
Caitlin Mills is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota and the study’s senior author. Her lab members and collaborators were interested in studying what experiences can promote creativity — especially when people are bored or doing something that doesn’t require their full attention. While some studies have found that mind-wandering leads to creativity, the results are mixed. Mills’ team wanted to know why.
They found that mind-wandering can lead to creative ideas — but only in the context of a moderately engaging activity. This finding may be the reason why you have all your best ideas in the shower, she says. Mills describes this kind of activity as a “sweet spot” for mind-wandering. In the shower, the external environment somewhat engages your mind and prevents you from getting pulled too deep into a single thought pattern. This limit is, in part, what allows us to think about something novel.
Mills’ team also found that boring activities promote creative thought, but this has more to do with problem-solving than ideation. Ultimately, the research suggests that taking a break to do something boring-to-moderately engaging — washing the dishes, perhaps — can help you overcome mental blocks.
“In today’s society, we are often tempted to take less breaks and engage in productivity-oriented ways to fill our time,” Mills says. “But taking a break may actually be more helpful when we are looking to solve a problem.”
The science of mind-wandering
Earlier work examining the link between mind wander and creativity is inconclusive, but Mills and her colleagues think the disparity in the data may be due to differences in study design and the types of thoughts each measured.
For example, during extremely boring moments, a person “may simply start planning what we’ll have for dinner that night,” she explains. Ultimately, when someone is bored with their situation they don’t typically stay in it. Instead, they do something else, like take a walk.
It’s also possible that occupying yourself in these ways may not always result in creativity, especially if people aren’t sure they will later return to the problem they left behind. This is why Mills and her colleagues defined and measured mind-wandering as “freely moving thought” rather than distracted thought.
In Mills’ study, participants had to come up with alternate uses for either a brick or a paperclip. They were then split into two groups and shown a three-minute video — the “incubation” time for their creative ideas. One video showed two men folding laundry. In other words, it was boring. The other video was less so: It was the scene in When Harry Met Sally where Sally fakes an orgasm to prove a point.
The researchers then asked the participants how often their minds wandered during the videos and then asked them to list their new uses for the brick and the paperclip. Ultimately, taking time to let participants’ minds wander led to more fresh ideas — but only for the When Harry Met Sally group.
Because free movement of thought fluctuates throughout the day — it's most constrained in the morning, less so in the afternoon, and then tightens back up in the evening — this work suggests that the next time you’re in an afternoon slump, you may want to let your mind wander while you make your lunch. Better yet, another study suggests you’ll enjoy being with your thoughts more than you likely realize.