Becoming better mind-wanderers to boost problem-solving and mood

I’m a big believ­er in day­dream­ing now and then—especially when I’m out hik­ing. There’s some­thing about being in nature that helps me let go of dai­ly cares and allows my mind to wan­der where it will, which feels great and often jump­starts my cre­ativ­i­ty as a writer and musician.

I admit, though, I’ve been trou­bled by research show­ing how mind-wan­der­ing could make me less pro­duc­tive or depressed—the last thing I need! But it turns out this gap between per­son­al expe­ri­ence and sci­ence may best be explained by how researchers have lumped togeth­er dif­fer­ent kinds of mind-wan­der­ing. Not all research has dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed between depres­sive rumi­na­tion (like replay­ing an ongo­ing dis­agree­ment with our spouse in our minds) and pleas­ant day­dream­ing (let­ting our minds wan­der freely).

Now, some new­er sci­ence is paint­ing a more nuanced pic­ture of what hap­pens to us when we let our minds wan­der. Though the research is young and grow­ing, it sug­gests that day­dream­ing may actu­al­ly make us hap­pi­er and more creative—if we do it the right way.

Daydreaming may be good for creativity

Anec­do­tal­ly, mind-wan­der­ing has been asso­ci­at­ed with cre­ativ­i­ty for cen­turies. But this link to cre­ativ­i­ty may depend on the type of mind-wan­der­ing you do, as a new study by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Calgary’s Julia Kam and her col­leagues suggests.

In this study, researchers used elec­troen­cephalo­gram tech­nol­o­gy to see what hap­pens in our brains when we are engaged in dif­fer­ent types of mind-wan­der­ing. To do that, they had peo­ple per­form a mun­dane, repet­i­tive task and inter­rupt­ed them occa­sion­al­ly to see what they were think­ing about, while con­tin­u­ous­ly mon­i­tor­ing their brain activity.

Some par­tic­i­pants report­ed thoughts that Kam calls “con­strained,” involv­ing things like rumi­nat­ing over a fight with a spouse or think­ing about how to man­age a work prob­lem. While these thoughts were not relat­ed to the task at hand, they were still some­what focused. Oth­ers report­ed thoughts that were “freely moving”—meaning, they skipped from thing to thing—perhaps day­dream­ing about a future vaca­tion in Italy, then won­der­ing if they need­ed a new bathing suit, then fan­ta­siz­ing about an old flame.

When Kam and her col­leagues matched people’s thoughts to their con­cur­rent brain activ­i­ty, they found sig­na­ture pat­terns for dif­fer­ent types of mind-wan­der­ing. In par­tic­u­lar, freely mov­ing thoughts were asso­ci­at­ed with increased alpha waves in the brain’s frontal cortex—a remark­able and nov­el find­ing, says Kam.

What’s real­ly strik­ing about find­ing this neur­al mark­er is that it’s been impli­cat­ed dur­ing stud­ies of cre­ativ­i­ty,” she says. “When you intro­duce alpha oscil­la­tion in the frontal cor­tex, peo­ple per­form bet­ter on cre­ative tasks.”

This kind of brain activ­i­ty maps well on to one par­tic­u­lar aspect of creativity—divergent think­ing or think­ing “out­side the box,” she says. When you’re gen­er­at­ing ideas, you want to be able to go in many direc­tions and not be con­strained, which freely mov­ing thought allows.

Mind-wan­der­ing has also been shown to enhance con­ver­gent think­ing: what hap­pens after you’ve brain­stormed ideas and have to pick the best of the bunch, she adds. So, it’s like­ly that mind-wan­der­ing serves a cre­ative purpose.

If a prob­lem has built up in your mind and you need to find a solu­tion, let­ting it go into the back­ground for a bit prob­a­bly helps,” she says. “Mind-wan­der­ing facil­i­tates the kind of solu­tion that just comes to you, as in a light­bulb moment.”

This mir­rors results from a 2015 study con­duct­ed by Claire Zedelius, for­mer­ly of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, San­ta Bar­bara. She looked at how mind-wan­der­ing affect­ed people’s per­for­mance on a cre­ativ­i­ty test where they have to come up with a nov­el word (e.g., “food”) that fits with three seem­ing­ly unre­lat­ed words (e.g., “fish, fast, and spicy”). She found that peo­ple who mind-wan­dered per­formed bet­ter on this task, the answer com­ing to them in a flash rather than through method­i­cal­ly test­ing dif­fer­ent solutions.

Peo­ple don’t even know how they got to the solution—it was just sud­den­ly there,” she says. “Mind-wan­der­ing helps with ‘aha’ types of problem-solving.”

In a more recent study, Zedelius looked at the con­tents of people’s thoughts to see how that relat­ed to every­day cre­ativ­i­ty (out­side of a lab set­ting). Par­tic­i­pants, includ­ing some cre­ative writ­ers, were prompt­ed via cell phones through­out the day to report on the nature of their thoughts and, at the end of the day, how cre­ative they had been. Find­ings showed that people’s minds often wan­dered to fair­ly mun­dane things—like plan­ning for a lat­er shop­ping trip—and that these thoughts had no effect on creativity.

But when people’s minds wan­dered in more fan­tas­ti­cal ways (play­ing out implau­si­ble fan­tasies or bizarre, fun­ny sce­nar­ios, for exam­ple) or in ways that seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly mean­ing­ful to them, they tend­ed to have more cre­ative ideas and feel more inspired at the end of the day, too. Inter­est­ing­ly, this was true for both writ­ers and every­day people.

Writ­ers prob­a­bly do this for their cre­ative process all the time—thinking through sto­ries, con­sid­er­ing ‘what ifs’ or unre­al­is­tic or bizarre sce­nar­ios,” says Zedelius. “But lay peo­ple will also do this more to be more creative.”

This sug­gests that the link between mind-wan­der­ing and cre­ativ­i­ty is more com­pli­cat­ed than pre­vi­ous­ly thought. It seems to depend on how freely mov­ing your thoughts are, the con­tent of your thoughts, and your abil­i­ty to be removed from every­day con­cerns. No doubt, this explains why my day­dream­ing on a hik­ing trail has led to song or sto­ry ideas that seem to bub­ble up from nowhere.

Mind-wandering can help boost our mood

Pri­or research sug­gests a wan­der­ing mind is an unhap­py mind: We tend to be less hap­py when we’re not focused on what we’re doing. And that’s like­ly true, if you tend to rehash past mis­takes or replay social flubs when your mind wan­ders, or if your mind-wan­der­ing keeps you from ful­fill­ing your goals.

Again, the con­tent of wan­der­ing thoughts makes a big dif­fer­ence. For exam­ple, as one 2013 study showed, when peo­ple found their wan­der­ing thoughts more inter­est­ing, their moods actu­al­ly improved while mind-wan­der­ing. Sim­i­lar­ly, oth­er stud­ies have found that think­ing about peo­ple you love or think­ing more about your poten­tial future than about what hap­pened in the past pro­duces pos­i­tive results.

How you use mind-wan­der­ing may also be impor­tant. In some cas­es, peo­ple inten­tion­al­ly mind-wander—something that has been most­ly unex­plored in the research, but like­ly has dis­tinct effects. As one 2017 study found, peo­ple who use day­dream­ing for self-reflec­tion typ­i­cal­ly have more pleas­ant thoughts than peo­ple who sim­ply rumi­nate on unpleas­ant experiences.

There is even some evi­dence that mind-wan­der­ing may be more of an anti­dote to depres­sion than a cause. Peo­ple who are depressed may sim­ply replay events from their past to bet­ter under­stand what hap­pened to cause their dark mood and avoid future prob­lems. Also, when researchers stud­ied whether a neg­a­tive mood pre­ced­ed or fol­lowed a mind-wan­der­ing episode, they found poor moods led to more mind-wan­der­ing but not vice ver­sa, sug­gest­ing that mind-wan­der­ing may be help­ing peo­ple feel better.

Now, find­ings from a 2021 study sug­gest that mind-wan­der­ing that is more freely mov­ing can actu­al­ly improve your mood.

In this study, par­tic­i­pants were prompt­ed ran­dom­ly via cell phone over three days to report how they were feel­ing (pos­i­tive ver­sus neg­a­tive) and how much their thoughts were freely mov­ing and relat­ed to what they were doing (or not).

After ana­lyz­ing the data, the researchers found that when people’s thoughts were off-task, they gen­er­al­ly felt more negative—similar to what ear­li­er find­ings showed. But if their thoughts were free-mov­ing, it had the oppo­site effect, help­ing peo­ple feel happier.

Our find­ings sug­gest there might be pos­i­tive aspects of mind-wan­der­ing,” the researchers conclude.

Again, I find that sci­ence sup­ports my own expe­ri­ence. If I sim­ply put myself in a space that lets my mind move freely, I don’t get depressed. On the con­trary, I’m hap­pi­er because of it.

Can we be better mind-wanderers?

While the research on this is still young, it does indi­cate there may be a right and a wrong way to mind-wander.

Kam warns that mind-wan­der­ing when you need to be focused on a task (or risk hurt­ing your­self or others—like if you’re dri­ving or doing surgery) could be prob­lem­at­ic. But, she says, if you let your mind wan­der when you’re doing mun­dane tasks that don’t require focus—like knit­ting or shelling peas–it may help you feel bet­ter or come up with cre­ative ideas.

The con­text and the con­tent of your mind-wan­der­ing is actu­al­ly real­ly impor­tant. It plays a role in whether you get a good out­come or a not-so-good one,” she says.

Though many of us have a default mode that takes our mind to dark places when we aren’t busi­ly engaged, that doesn’t mean we have to stay stuck there. If we can divert our thoughts from those dark­er places, we’ll like­ly get more out of mind-wandering.

Kam thinks prac­tic­ing mind­ful­ness could help with that, as long as it increas­es aware­ness of our thoughts and alerts us when we’ve strayed into prob­lem­at­ic think­ing, which could then help us redi­rect our mind-wandering.

Just hav­ing more con­trol over when mind-wan­der­ing hap­pens and the kind of thoughts that you have would be very use­ful,” she says.

Zedelius also says aware­ness mat­ters. As many study par­tic­i­pants told her, they had nev­er paid much atten­tion to where their minds went before being in her study, but found the process eye-opening.

They would say, ‘I’ve become aware of pat­terns in my thoughts that I nev­er noticed before—what I get drawn to,’” she says. “It makes me won­der if the repeat­ed prob­ing we do in our exper­i­ments could not just be used as a mea­sure, but as a type of inter­ven­tion, to see if aware­ness changes over time.”

Of course, even though day­dream­ing may be good for us, it gets a pret­ty bad rap in Amer­i­can cul­ture. Amer­i­cans tend to pride them­selves on their strong work ethic—often trans­lat­ed as work­ing hard for long hours with com­plete focus.

But peo­ple are not built to be “on” all of the time. Tak­ing a mind-wan­der­ing break might be good not just for our cre­ativ­i­ty and hap­pi­ness, but also for our pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, espe­cial­ly if we are in jobs requir­ing focused atten­tion that is drain­ing to main­tain. And, as long as it’s employed dur­ing times when com­plete focus isn’t required, it may improve our well-being with­out ham­per­ing performance.

We shouldn’t need an excuse to mind-wan­der, giv­en that it’s part of our human inher­i­tance. Besides, we’ve hard­ly begun to rec­og­nize what it can do for us, says Zedelius.

My hope is that peo­ple will explore the lim­its of mind-wan­der­ing a bit more and try to mind-wan­der in a way that is big­ger, more fan­tas­ti­cal, more per­son­al­ly mean­ing­ful, and fur­ther into the future,” she says. “If peo­ple just real­ly allowed them­selves to play­ful­ly use this tool, they might be able to focus on cre­ative solu­tions to big problems.”

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review edi­tor and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to the mag­a­zine. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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