Spacing Out? Good!

From Charlie Jane Anders:

I’m totally into spacing out, finding myself in a reverie, and it is not uncommon to encounter creative ideas in that space-out zone.

How about you?

We all experience the state of “mind wandering” on occasion — sometimes it feels almost like going into a trance. You can be in the middle of a meeting at work, and suddenly your mind is just going off on its own, with a train of thought you couldn’t reconstruct afterwards to save your life. Is this phenomenon just a waste of time, or a failure to pay attention on your part?

Apparently not — there’s now a fair amount of evidence that this state can be linked to increased creativity. A number of studies have shown that focused attention to a task can reduce your creativity, while a certain amount of mental wandering can actually boost your creative process. For example, a 2006 study by Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs with the University of Amsterdam found people who engaged in “unconscious thought” before solving a problem did better than people who’d been focused on something consciously.

Also, a recent study by researchers led by U.C. Santa Barbara’s Benjamin Baird found that people who were allowed to let their minds wander scored better on one measure of creativity — the “Unusual Task” test. (This research is forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, but we were sent an early copy.)

“It doesn’t really seem to be that they’re thinking about the problem per se,” says Jonathan Schooler at UCSB, one of the study’s authors. “But it’s encouraging a sort of free association — a sort of stirring things up —and allowing for an unconscious recombination that primes the pump.”

Mind-wandering is an “associative” state, so it makes sense that it would help you to come up with out-of-left-field answers.

But also, there’s new evidence that when you space out, you’re activating two separate regions of your brain that don’t usually work together. The “executive network” in the front of your brain is usually thought to be active when the brain is doing decision-making and problem solving. Meanwhile, the “default network” is believed to be active during times when your brain is at rest.

Until recently, neuroscientists believed that the “executive network” and the “default network” were mutually exclusive — one would turn on when the other turned off. But now there’s evidence that both regions are active at the same time, when your mind is wandering.

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  • Marshall

    But I hate it when I don’t turn the stove burner off, when I put the car keys down some random place, when I forget to stop at the store on the way home, when I leave without doing something I promised I would do, when I’m not listening when somebody says something important. The thoughts I might be thinking aren’t as grand as all that.

  • Dan

    Well, I guess my spaced-out cousin really IS just creative after all. Now if we could just figure out why he gets the munchies all the time …