Why mind wandering is a creative advantage

 

One of today’s greatest challenges is not that we know too little, but rather it’s our ability to come up with new and creative ways to solve problems, so as to remain relevant, up-to-date and competitive.

That’s why knowing how to tap into the full potential of the human mind is a must not a maybe. Unfortunately some workplaces either unwittingly or deliberately shut this hidden talent down. This can be because compliance and procedure take precedence, or because tradition is more highly valued than initiative.

Sometimes it’s because when everyone is under the pump, constantly working under pressure, our brain is then operating in survival mode effectively shutting down access to our more creative side.

Paradoxically the solution, although it feels the wrong thing to do, is to uncouple from your focus and allow your mind the luxury of a little mind wander.

While mind wandering can be viewed as time wasting or a reflection of poor self-discipline, when chosen deliberately it can provide an alternative mental route to discover the solution to that challenging problem that’s been bothering you.

Our mighty subconscious is a veritable labyrinth of new associations waiting to be made. Many of our greatest insights arise when we are unfocused, which is why they occur when we are in the shower, while exercising or talking a walk.

One of my favourite past-times (don’t tell) is to sit in a café, bus or train and just stare out of the window. I’m not looking, just noticing my thoughts. It is this meta-awareness that enables more divergent thinking patterns that leads to greater creativity compared to the more usual convergent thinking we engage in with our logic and reasoning.

“Penny for your thoughts?” If only, I could have made my fortune by now!

Distractions, long thought to be the bane of our lives, especially those we impose upon ourselves have now been shown by research to provide a useful cognitive advantage.

A study from Bar-Ilan’s Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory found how stimulating an area known as the dlPFC (dorsolateral prefrontal cortex for short) using trans cranial direct current stimulation (that’s tickling your neurons with an electrical current) increased the amount of mind wandering in subjects.

In a WSJ article Robert Sapolsky, anthropologist and Stanford Professor writes how he believes our smart PFC has evolved this way to allow us to use distractions such as mind wandering to make tedious tasks more palatable and to meander our way to a more creative solution to our problems. The suggestion is that mind wandering plays an important cognitive role in enabling us to be more creative and to run future orientated test flights of our imagination.

If you are looking to develop greater creativity and innovative thinking in your team, it’s important to have the right environment that allows for some mental distraction. Taking time out to think and ponder provides the breathing space brains need to percolate and incubate those next brilliant new ideas.

I’ll see you down at the café.

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