The Right Way and Wrong Way to Let Your Mind Wander

We've all heard stories of inspiration striking out of the blue. It seems as though the moment your mind wanders, ideas and answers spring out of the void. Sometimes you can think about a problem logically for hours, without getting anywhere — but as soon as you "zone out," a clever solution pops into your head.

There's tons of evidence that "spacing out" is actually a special state that allows for increased creativity and decision-making. But what you might not know is that some ways to "space out" are more helpful than others.

Evidence that "Spacing Out" Might Be a Special State

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.

The Right Way and Wrong Way to Let Your Mind Wander

A team led by Kalina Christoff at University of British Columbia, Vancouver studied the brains of people whose minds were wandering, using a functional MRI device. In a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, they reported that both the executive and default networks seemed to be active during mind-wandering. (In the figure at left, downward blue arrows represent executive network activity, and upward green arrows represent default network activity.)

A mental state in which both the executive network and the default network are active is an "interesting middle place," says Schooler, who was a co-author on the Christoff study. You see a relationship between these two networks in the brain that many people didn't think was even possible — and that almost nobody thought was a common mental state.

"That maybe one of the reasons why you see this peculiar functionality to mind-wandering," adds Schooler. "It allows two systems to get along, in a way that they wouldn't" normally.

But Schooler adds a caveat:

Lots of things happen in the brain at the same time, so really knowing the functionality of particular brain regions is challenging. I think there's a good reasons to be cautious in both ways in terms of jumping to conclusions about the relative functionality of different patterns of brain activation.

What types of zoning out are better for creativity?

There are a few ways to make sure that your time spent "spacing out" is actually productive, rather than just a waste:

1) Do something unchallenging.

A number of recent studies show that the less complex the task you're doing when your mind wanders, the better it is for creativity. The Baird study, mentioned above, found that people who were engaged in an "undemanding task" when their minds wandered scored better on a measure of creativity than people who were engaged in a "demanding task."

If you let your mind wander while you're in the middle of a demanding task — such as reading a complicated book, or sitting through an important meeting — you're less likely to accomplish the task successfully, points out Schooler. But also, you're less likely to get real benefit out of the mind-wandering, because it's harder to tune out a more challenging task.

So Schooler recommends making time to let your mind wander when you're doing something that's already pretty mindless — like taking a shower, or gardening. "I used to say knitting, but it turns out that knitting is actually much harder than I thought," says Schooler.

"That seems to be a useful kind of mind-wandering for creativity," says Schooler. There's also some evidence that people who are doing a non-demanding task are more likely to think about the future while their minds are wandering, and this can lead to "productive planning."

2) Be aware that you're zoning out

Zoning out may be more creative, or more useful, when you know that you're doing it. There have been a number of studies recently on mind-wandering both with and without "meta-awareness." That is, your own awareness of your mental state. Your mind is only sometimes aware that it's wandering, and sometimes this awareness can serve to jar you out of this state.

The Right Way and Wrong Way to Let Your Mind Wander

In fact, a paper that Schooler and his colleagues published in the July 2011 issue of Trends in Cognitive Sciences shows some evidence that the more meta-awareness you have, the less certain regions of your brain are likely to light up during "mind wandering." Your awareness that you're letting your mind drift may prevent you from disengaging fully with the world around you.

At the same time, though, Schooler says that he and his colleagues have "some unpublished data" that suggest that "people who mind wander and know that they're mind wandering" are especially likely to be creative. Awareness that your mind is wandering seems to be "particularly conducive to creativity."

It's also possible that if you're trying to daydream on purpose, you may perceive the experience differently than if you're trying to focus on a task, says Jackie Andrade, a psychology professor at Plymouth University.

3) Practice meditation

In many ways, it turns out meditation is the opposite of mind wandering, says Schooler — studies have shown that people who meditate are actually reducing the participation of their default network, which is activated when your mind blanks out. And "mind-wandering and mindfulness are in some ways opposite constructs," says Schooler.

The Right Way and Wrong Way to Let Your Mind Wander

And yet, there is some recent evidence that meditation, too, helps with creativity. "It may be that even though mind-wandering and meditation are opposite in some regards, they may also show some important similarities," says Schooler. In both states, you're disengaged from external stimuli, which allows the brain to reorganize itself. A similar process may happen during REM sleep.

But Warren Meck, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, says that he believes meditation is a way to reach the "Yo-Yo Zone" of mind wandering without the fatigue that usually accompanies it. He's done some experiments where people zone out while looking at a blue square or listening to a tone and keeping track of how long it appears for. He finds that when people are actually trying to concentrate on "feeling" the blue square or audio tone, they manage to block out the rest of the world and are more attuned to that one piece of stimulus. Meck believes that actually concentrating on one piece of stimulus may lead to a more useful sort of blank mindedness.

Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley's lab at UCSF is just starting a new project to learn ways to help you control the process of deep thought — and Gazzaley says a lot of it has to do with adapting traditional Eastern teachings about meditation. Gazzaley believes that meditation gives you more control over processes such as daydreaming, and this is key to having a fruitful outcome.

Gazzaley's lab is working on a huge project to create mobile video games that will teach you to manage internal distractions, so that when your mind wanders, it can go in the path that's most useful for you — and although it's too early to say what form those video games will take, Gazzaley says they'll be based on lessons from "Eastern philosophies and lessons," especially meditation.

Top image: Vlue/Shutterstock.com. Bottom image: Rosie Bailey Stevenson/Flickr.