The Creativity of Wandering Minds

NPR’s All Things Considered ran a story on Monday about how smartphones might make it harder to be bored, and how that might not necessarily be a good thing, since boredom may be an unexpected cause of creativity. What particularly interested me in the story was a quotation from Sandi Mann, who was cited as a “U.K. psychologist.” Mann suggests that boredom induces the mind to seek stimulation. When we’re bored, she says,

We might go off in our heads to try and find that stimulation by our minds wandering, daydreaming and you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit in the subconscious which allows sort of different connections to take place[.]

I’ve heard about similar research (though unfortunately I can’t remember the source at the moment) suggesting that engaging in a routine or repetitive task frees the unconscious mind to concentrate on drawing new connections between ideas, which in turn leads to innovative or “creative” thoughts. Whether it’s through boredom, as Mann suggests, or through routine activity, to me the effect is the same: allowing the mind to let go of a singular conscious focus often helps the creative process, instead of hindering it.

I would imagine that many people who do “creative” activities (such as art, or writing, or graphic design, or composing music) know this phenomenon through personal experience. It still makes me chuckle sometimes that ideas for something to write about often come to me when I’m taking a shower, even though it’s happened to me for years. And part of the reason why I’ve decided to make this blog about an open variety of topics is that I’ve learned to trust the part of myself that tends to stray from being focused. I’m confident now that letting go of that focus, when the time and circumstances are right, can lead to beneficial insights. As the quotation from Mann suggests, letting your mind “wander” allows the subconscious or unconscious part of your mind to think in ways that you normally might not when your conscious reasoning is in control. In a similar way, I’d like to think that a blog that wanders from topic to topic can be as interesting as one that is all about a particular chosen subject. (The mechanics of wandering blogs are not exactly the same as those of wandering minds, of course, but I think the analogy still holds up fairly well.)

It is fascinating, though, to watch scientists and researchers explore these aspects of the mind that we tend to think of as non-rational. The “unconscious” part of the mind would seem to be very difficult to study through empirical science, since by definition it operates “behind the scenes,” so to speak, away from our conscious powers of reasoning and observation. And studies like these always raise the question of what kind of thinking counts as “creative” or “innovative” or “original” from a scientific point of view. Still, it’s interesting to have another perspective on the kind of thought processes that drive creativity.