The Wandering Mind is a Creative Mind by Thoughts In HD

A Report on Enhancing Creativity Through Mind-Wandering

Once upon a time a man was attempting to solve a very demanding riddle[1]. After hours of attempting to solve it he decided to do an undemanding task, like mast– um, wash the dishes. As he washed the dishes his mind wandered and was no longer preoccupied with the riddle. After finishing his… chore…he made his way back to the problem, and eureka,  had the solution! His delight at figuring out the riddle was so great he did not question how he arrived there but simply lived happily ever after … The End.

Though happily ever after is certainly not that easy, this story does exemplify how some problems are solved in a flash of creative insight.  Insight is described as the sudden realization of a solution to a problem (Goldstein, 2011, pp. 327-328). Einstein and Newton are just some persons of note who have claimed to have solved problems or gained creative thoughts similarly to this fictional man (Baird, Smallwood, Mrazek, Kam, Franklin, and Schooler, 2012).  This creative insight phenomenon raises the question, does mind-wandering help with enhancing creativity? Baird et al.’s (2012) paper attemptsto unravel the mystery of mind-wanderings ability to aid in creativity.

The authors measured mind-wandering during four incubation conditions and measured creativity before and after the incubation.

Creativity recursively presupposes insight as a definition; the insights are innovative, and involve new and novel thinking (Goldstein, 2011, pp.348). Creativity is also a sort of divergent thinking (thinking that has no set solution) (Goldstein, 2011, pp.348). The authors measured mind-wandering during four incubation conditions and measured creativity before and after the incubation. Creativity was measured through the Unusual Uses Task (UUT) and mind-wandering was recorded through self-questionnaires.  UUT is a task that asks the participant to create unusual uses for a common object. For example, how can a brick be used other than building a wall? See Home Alone 1 and 2 for the best answers.

The four incubation conditions the authors tested were: an undemanding task, demanding task, no task at all, and a no incubation period.The demanding task condition asked participants to do a one-back working memory task. The participants had to recall whether a preceding stimulus (numbers one through nine) was even or odd when presented with the target (a colored question mark). In the undemanding task, participants responded by stating when a number was even or odd. In the no task condition, participants simply waited in a room, and in the no incubation period participants continued with the second round of UUT. Participants were tested again after the incubation period conditions and were given new objects as well as repeat objects.

The study reveals two interesting real-world implications.

The results demonstrated that creativity scores were significantly better for participants in the undemanding task than the other conditions, but only with previously seen objects (repeat exposure). There was no significant difference between the conditions for new objects, or within the rest of the conditions. The questionnaires showed that participants were apt to mind-wander during an undemanding task than the other conditions. Therefore, in a preliminary fashion, mind-wandering indeed aids in creativity for previously exposed problems/creative endeavors. Secondly, mind-wandering is greatest when an individual is actually doing an undemanding task (instead of simply doing nothing). This means that one cannot hope for a million dollar idea by just sitting around, but I mean lottery tickets right?

The study also reveals two interesting real-world implications. First, ADHD people have been correlated with high levels of mind-wandering (Baird et al., 2012). Yet, many medications and treatments for ADHD attempt to reduce mind-wandering (by improving concentration). The paper does not address this implication of their findings; if mind-wandering is beneficial are we doing a disservice to ADHD persons by reducing it? More research into mind-wandering may turn the hindrance into a benefit. Second, taking a break to do an undemanding task may reduce fixation. Fixation occurs when focus on a specific aspect of a problem prevents one from solving the problem. For example, certain objects have familiar uses; people can be fixated on the familiar function of the object and this prevents them from using the object differently (functional fixedness) (Goldstein, 2011, pp. 329). Their findings suggest that mind-wandering may reduce fixation, thereby reducing the time it takes to solve a problem (be it creatively or not).

What the experiment did not take into account is the individual differences in creativity and creativity within an individual.

There are also limitations of the study. What the experiment did not take into account is the individual differences in creativity and creativity within an individual. Einstein’s sudden insights into the universe are definitely a bit more creative than UUT insights. How would Einstein then perform on the UUT task after incubation? More research needs to be done in individual creativity and incubation effects (Baird et al., 2012). Another limitation of the study is the unanswered question of when is the best time to step away from a problem and let the mind-wander? And how long should the incubation period be? This could have been measured by changing the time lengths within in each condition; in their paradigm each incubation period lasted 12 minutes. Multiple trials within the same condition at different intervals could have been tested, and varying when the breaks were taken could have also addressed this limitation.

In Conclusion

In conclusion, it is suggested that mind-wandering improves creativity and insight, not unlike the upcoming research in sleep and REM cycle for problem-solving (Baird et al., 2012). A direction that this research could eventually lead to is a change in education. Education is quite fixated on the idea of long lectures that require extensive concentration; perhaps scheduled incubation periods may improve learning and problem-solving. More research in this area needs to be done, but it would be quite interesting to see what would happen if students are given schedule breaks to do undemanding tasks during lectures. Perhaps give them easy riddles to solve, and wait until the very end to give them the answer1?

Insight is the dramatically ironic answer to my earlier Tolkien-esque riddle, as it is both the solution and  the prerequisite to the solution.  And it’s  definitely not the only solution– let’s not snub creativity here. My next area of research is in insight cascades i.e. Flow States and  it would be of great interest to me to see if my own mind-wandering tendencies could actually be turned into something productive.


Benjamin Baird, J. S. (2012). Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation. Psychological Science, 1117-1122.

(Baird, et al., 2012)

[1]“This thing all people have desired,

The young, the middle and the retired,

It cannot be controlled, cannot be willed

Unpredictable and suddenly instilled

Occurs in all, for a problem it kills

What is it?”