This article is 2234 words. If you don’t expect to zone out for at least 40% of them, I want you to stop reading now because you are probably a thinker and this is not meant for you.
Ironically, this article is for the few who have already lost concentration. It’s for those whose eyes have already glazed over as they ponder a BBQ at Jeff’s this weekend, muse over a childhood memory, wonder if the Higgs boson will affect time travel, or daydream about the sex they didn’t have last night but intend to have in the near future.
If you’ve heeded my advice, there should be only 12% continuing now, hopefully struggling to read my every word. You 1-in-8 are most likely the Super-Creative Core as defined by Professor Richard Florida, head of the Martin Prosperity Institute, in his social theory on the Creative Class. Your primary function is to be innovative and creative. According to Florida, “Along with problem solving, [your] work may entail problem finding.”
Innovation and creativity has led you to a career in engineering, programming, arts, design, or media. And advertising.
Which means you’re probably also the ones who are constantly drifting off inside your own head. Reading these sentences will be a challenge as your attention keeps slipping and your mind wanders. It’s certainly a challenge for me to write them.
We are the creative ones. But it seems creativity comes at a price.
According to various scientific studies, our ability to be creative may lie in our inability to focus. Or vice versa.
Areas of the brain, such as the dorsolateral prefontal cortex (in case you were wondering), are associated with what is known as Executive Control. It is the mind’s overriding mechanism for assigning it’s own functionality toward a specific task or goal. Often closely linked to the concept of attention, it is the ability to filter out distractions, focus on a defined task, and decide how task operations are selected, scheduled and terminated. And because keeping track of this scheduling requires information to be retained, short-term memory is often used to measure Executive Control.
Studies show that people with a high level of Executive Control, those who can focus, are better at solving analytical problems, reasoning tasks and mathematics. While these people tend to have a higher IQ, they struggle with problems that require innovation, inspiration and creativity.
Try this simple puzzle, a type often used in these studies: what single word can be added to ‘apple, mister and foot’ to make another word or phrase?*
Minds with higher Executive Control struggle to solve it because they attempt an analytical approach, methodically flicking through their vocabulary, discarding mismatches until they find potential answers, whereas the creative daydreamer will usually solve the puzzle quickly through flashes of inspiration that connect seemingly disparate items.
Another established measure of creative thinking, the Unusual Uses Task (UUT) asks subjects to think of creative uses for a mundane object, such as toothpicks, clothes hangers or a brick.
Jonathan Schooler, Professor of Psychology at the University of California in Santa Barbara, once noticed how often his mind wandered, ironically, while attending a seminar on consciousness. “My mind kept wandering about mind wandering,” he said.
To determine how often our minds wander, Schooler decided to quantify daydreaming. In his lab, he had volunteers read extracts of Tolstoys’ War and Peace, instructing them to report if they noticed their mind wandering, asking what they were thinking at random intervals, and then testing the readers’ comprehension of the text. His test showed that the subjects’ minds wandered more than 20% of the time, often without realising.
Another recent study in Science (vol 330, p 932) suggests our ability to lose concentration may far exceed Schooler’s estimation. A smartphone app was designed to query the user’s state of mind at random intervals over a period of time, and the data showed their minds spent a staggering 47% of time thinking about things other than whatever task was at hand.
So what is our brain doing when it’s not doing what it should be doing?
Malia F. Mason, Associate Professor at Columbia University in New York, may have the answer. Some of her research focuses on attention and why the mind wanders, using brain imaging (MRI) to investigate.
For years, scientists have been placing people in brain scanners, giving them specific tasks to perform, and scrutinising the brain activity. What they weren’t doing was watching the monitors between each experiment when the subject was still in the scanner but left to think for themselves. During these moments of supposed inactivity, there is a surge in brain activity.
Mason’s MRI studies, published in Science (vol 315, p393), show that when we’re in a state of mind wandering, a network of neural regions throughout the brain, known collectively as the Default Network, fire up. Part of the role of the Default Network is to sort through memories, filtering and deciding what should be stored.
These pathways may help us link disparate items.
Much like the times we try to clean out boxes stored in the garage. While picking through heterogeneous things collected over time, working out what to do with them, we suddenly find ourselves with a child’s plush toy rabbit (sans one floppy ear) in one hand and a LP of Def Leppard’s Hysteria in the other, and somehow draw a link between the two: perhaps 1987; perhaps severed body parts; perhaps a served body part in 1987 while riding a tractor our Mad Uncle Henry warned us about.
The ability to link disparate thoughts is an important aspect for creativity. In the context of our own business of advertising, our challenge is to find a way to link a certain product with a certain consumer at a certain time in a certain place. Unless those four pieces of the puzzle just happen to align, it requires some creative thinking to produce a framework in which they all happily coexist.
We call it: the idea.
To draw upon the Default Network’s randomised filtering and sorting process, we need to zone out. Zoning out frees us from the rigid limitations imposed by Executive Control, allowing us to think creatively, draw distinctions between disparate elements, and use them in ways that couldn’t have been developed via an analytical approach.
But surely we’d need a test to prove innovation comes from daydreaming.
Enter: Schooler (again) and Benjamin Baird, a graduate student of UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
Their latest study on the link between daydreaming and creativity Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation, published in the journal Psychological Science (August 2012), opens: “Although anecdotes that creative thoughts often arise when one is engaged in an unrelated train of thought date back thousands of years, empirical research has not yet investigated this potentially critical source of inspiration.”
The data from Baird and Schooler’s experiment now suggests that engaging in tasks that cause the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.
Their UUT-based experiment consisted of three parts. Firstly, participants spent 2 minutes thinking of unusual uses for a brick. Then, some had to complete some form of mindless task, such as watching for alphabetic letters on a computer monitor, while others were given a much harder task that demanded their full attention.
Lastly, all subjects were asked to attempt the Unusual Uses Task on the brick again.
As expected, those who had to mindlessly watch the screen for letters, experienced significant mind wandering during step 2. But unexpectedly, they also thought up 40% more uses for a brick on their second attempt, while those who had to concentrate barely showed any improvement.
Even more surprising, the daydreamers had not been thinking about the brick when their minds wandered during step 2.
Apparently, as we drift off, our brain is quietly thinking over the previous problem, allowing the Default Network to subconsciously sift, sort and store, so that when we return to the task, potential solutions are neatly filed and ready to go.
And that’s where is gets really interesting.
An earlier study by Schooler in 2009 showed that as the mind began to wander, firing up the Default Network, other parts of the brain, including that dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, activated some of the Executive Control functions.
These two thought centres should be in total opposition: one is freewheeling while the other is rigid focus.
Schooler surmises that this particular function of Executive Control is for systematically keeping track of the important ideas and storing them in the ‘working memory’.
To achieve true creativity, it seems we need both neural centres with the ability to deftly switch between focusing in and zoning out.
To test for a link between proven creativity and mind-wandering, Dr Shelley Carson, psychology PhD from Harvard University and author of Your Creative Brain, conducted a small study in 2003. Carson and colleagues gathered people with proven success in a creative endeavor – published authors, patent inventors, and exhibited artists – and gave them ‘latent inhibition tests’. These computer tests ask subjects to ignore irrelevant information, and the study showed these successful creative thinkers found it harder to disregard useless data, making their minds wander more than the average person.
But not everyone thinks daydreaming is the key to creative thinking.
The father of psychology himself, Sigmund Freud called the wandering mind “infantile”.
Educational psychologists in the 1950s believed children would be drawn into “neurosis and even psychosis” if they let their minds wander.
Joydeep Bhattacharya, Professor of Psychology of Goldsmiths University in London, doubts the studies, saying “Have we seen hard evidence that daydreaming leads to creativity? Not yet.”
“The moment you study creativity in the laboratory you dilute it,” says Bhattacharya.
That may be so. The laboratory could likely create anxiety or nervousness, and many studies have shown anxiety is counter-productive to mind wandering. Cognitive Neuroscientist, Mark Beeman, Associate Professor at Northwestern University, Illinois, says, “An anxious mood comes with a high degree of focus.”
Possibly a fight-or-flight symptom, anxiety causes concentration, thereby removing the possibility of a creative-inducing daydream.
Which brings me to the advertising industry’s lab-condition creativity session: the brainstorm.
Are they an effective means of extracting creative thinking or does the pressure of laying, fragile incomplete thoughts out in the open before judgmental colleagues engage our hyper-alert Executive Control state? While the brainstorm adjudicator may attempt to soothe and coax us into the liberating freedom of mind-wandering, they are actually constructing an environment of control and focus that inhibits the Default Network from subconsciously sifting through disparate thoughts and striking the elusive Eureka moment.
As with the all-important deadline. Unfortunately we cannot remove all deadlines from our industry, so we should change our approach as time runs short. Instead of forcing yourself to concentrate and power through to the bitter end, it may be better to relax a little or take a quick break.
In a study published in PLoS One (vol 3, p 1459), Bhattacharya monitored the alpha-waves of the brain and found those subjects in a more relaxed state had better success at solving creative puzzles.
I also call into question that other bastion of the advertising agency’s creative department: the foosball table. Creatives the world over may vilify me for this, but all the research seem to indicate the foosball table could be counter-productive to creativity. Instead of being a break from the intense pressure of cracking briefs, it is more likely to induce our Executive Control state as we maintain fervent attention on the little white ball and calculate complex angles and maneuvers. Following such a state of alertness and focus, we are unlikely to slip into daydream mode.
Perhaps a better system for maximizing creative potential would be to mimic the Baird/Schooler experiment. After a normal briefing session, the Creatives are given a period of time for freewheeling thought. Then they must perform some mindless task, like watching for letters on a computer screen, to induce mind-wandering. This allows their subconscious to mull over potential solutions to the brief before the Creatives return to the project to have another crack. According to the experiment’s results, they should produce an average 40% more ideas.
Another staple of the Creative department is the out-of-office brainstorm session at the local coffee shop. Unfortunately, caffeine should be avoided since we all know it focuses concentration, which is now the last thing we need to be creative.
And for those whom I upset with my disparaging statement about foosball, I now make amends with alcohol. Once again, Schooler comes to the rescue when he and colleagues tested the concentration of drunk students against sober students. The two groups were given complex word puzzles that required creative thinking, rather than an analytical and methodical approach. The students fueled with vodka-cranberry solved more creative challenges, and at a faster pace, than the group of teetotalers. Eureka!
Alas, while alcohol sounds like the fun path to creativity, it is not necessarily the most ethical or work-friendly method.
To achieve creative greatness, simply let your mind wander so the flashes of brilliance can strike gold amongst the deepest recesses of your daydream-loving Default Network. For when it comes to ideation, research shows that concentration is well and truly over-rated.
So stop thinking.
*If any thinkers ignored my instruction to disregard this article, the answer to the word puzzle is ‘big’.