Sir Isaac Newton wasn’t in his laboratory when he discovered the law of universal gravitation. If you believe the fable, he was relaxing in the countryside, and whether or not an apple fell on his head what matters is that he was taking a break when the realization hit him.
Aha! or Eureka! moments often happen when we least expect them—when we allow ourselves to be distracted, says Harvard University psychology researcher Shelley H. Carson, author of Your Creative Brain: Seven Steps to Maximize Imagination, Productivity, and Innovation in Your Life.
"In some ways distractions are a form of mindfulness—being mindful of your environment and noticing more new things," she says. "Being open to them allows for the ability to take bits of information and combine them in novel ways that are useful or adaptive."
While there are times you need to modulate your level of focus, allowing yourself to be distracted can take you down interesting pathways you hadn’t expected, says Carson. Here are three benefits that distraction can bring:
A distraction is defined as something that grabs your attention. Distractions foster creativity because they put a higher number of stimuli in your conscious awareness, allowing you the opportunity to generate more new ideas.
"If you’re concentrating on something and excluding everything else, you may not be able to take advantage of distractions that can form novel and original combinations," Carson says.
Highly creative people explore the universe and allow their attention to be grabbed by everything. Everything is interesting, and they’re continually rewarded by novel stimuli, says Carson.
An important part of using distractions is to look at them in a non-judgmental way. When a distraction happens, let it give you a chance to pay attention to more of the things around you and see what kind of creative inspiration it gives you. Carson says we should all be open to distractions, whether your job is creative or not.
"You need new ideas to survive in our rapidly changing climate," she says. "It doesn’t matter what kind of business you’re in, we all need to be creative. Go with it and see where it takes you. It’s not always detrimental."
Another benefit to being distracted is that it often leads to solutions: "Something in the environment will trigger an idea that solves a problem that’s been simmering in the back of your mind," says Carson. "That’s called opportunistic assimilation. It’s the Aha! moment you put together when you realize something you just came across would be useful in something else you’re doing."
In 2012, researchers from Carnegie Mellon University found that the regions of the brain that handle decision-making are still active when the conscious mind is distracted with a different task. The study, published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, explains why a great idea or solution will come to you while you’re in the shower, driving a car, or chatting with a coworker.
"This study provides some of the first clues for how our brains process this information for effective problem-solving and decision-making," writes J. David Creswell, assistant professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory. "What’s most intriguing is that participants did not have any awareness that their brains were still working on the decision problem while they were engaged in an unrelated task."
Becoming more distractible can also elevate your mood. Through her research, Carson found that when someone is distracted, their mood can move from depressed to normal and continue in an upward direction.
"When your mood is down you notice fewer things," she says.
It’s possible to purposefully improve your mood by inviting distractions. Carson suggests doing an exercise to increase amount of stimuli you’re noticing. For example, sit comfortably in a chair and notice your feet on floor. Notice the places where your body touches the furniture. Notice the feel of the fabric you're wearing. Notice the sounds in the environment that you had been filtering out.
"Take away the filters that you usually use to limit information," she says. "As you notice all of these new things, the distractions will open your mind."