Feeling distracted? Suffering from information overload? You’ve probably heard more than once that you need to “get in the zone” and stop juggling so many thoughts at once. To cope with it all, some people try social media sabbaticals, digital detoxes, or spiritual retreats. Others try yoga, mindfulness, and meditation. The assumption, at any rate, is that a restless mind is a troubled mind, and that unless we can cut down on distractions and really focus, life in the attention economy make us miserable. But that may not be true, and even if it were, it might not be possible to achieve.
For many of us, our social and professional lives depend on spending lots of time in front of a screen, processing vast quantities of information in a very short time. Inevitably, this means rationing our attention and hedging our thoughts. We can decry the evils of multitasking all we like, but the fact is it’s long been the cognitive norm. Our minds are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, present and absent, on and off.
What’s more, our typical patterns of focus are dictated by our personalities. Some of us prefer to devote all of our mental resources to a single task at a given time, while others are dispositionally inclined to have more scattered thoughts and ideas, jumping from one to the next and back again. Trying to change that means going against our individual natures–it’s time-consuming and taxing, and the odds of long-term success are generally low.
On the other hand, scientists are now uncovering some important advantages to being more mentally unfocused. Indeed, mind-wandering–the tendency to have thoughts unrelated to your current task–is the exact opposite of mindfulness, being totally immersed in a situation and absorbed by it.
Yet one mental mode is potentially just as beneficial as the other. Studies report that most people spend as much time mind-wandering as focusing on what is actually happening. If mind-wandering is actually a core feature of human thought, it’s hard to call it either “good” or “bad.”
More to the point, mind-wandering is the by-product of two important mental capacities: the ability to disengage from perception (ignoring something that’s present), and the ability to engage in “meta-awareness” (focusing on our own thoughts). People who exercise both those capacities more regularly tend to have a more restless mind, which research has shown is linked to creativity.
Chronic mind-wanderers aren’t typically as good at filtering out irrelevant information from their surroundings–an ability known as “latent inhibition.” But that’s actually an advantage when it comes to generating original and innovative ideas. In order to think outside the box, you have to be able to consider unusual thoughts and concepts, not suppress them. After all, the raw ingredients of creativity–from a strictly rational perspective, anyway–are usually wrong and absurd, but logical thinking is rarely a creative gateway.
That’s because logical reasoning demands “convergent thinking,” finding a single right answer to a well-defined problem, while creativity requires “divergent thinking,” coming up with lots of potential answers to an ill-defined problem. Mind-wandering has been linked to higher levels of divergent thinking and openness to experience, two common traits of highly creative people.
While some people may be more inclined toward mind-wandering than others, the habit seems to play a part in creative thinking itself, regardless of our personalities. “Incubation activities” are things we do that draw our focus away from a problem for a certain period of time in order to activate unconscious thoughts that ultimately help us find the solution. One recent study put it this way:
Creative discoveries result from a process whereby initial conscious thought is followed by a period during which one refrains from task-related conscious thought. For example, one may spend an embarrassing amount of time thinking about a problem when the solution suddenly pops into consciousness while taking a shower.
It’s also clear that deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts usually backfire. When you try hard not to think of something, you usually end up thinking about it even harder. In other words–and paradoxically–the less you resist a thought, the freer you’ll be from it. Giving in to mind-wandering can help us break that cycle.
Although research has also linked mind-wandering to undesirable emotions, it’s probably better understood as the consequence rather than the cause of negative emotions. It isn’t mind-wandering that makes you unhappy, it’s just that when you’re unhappy, your mind tends to wander more. However, trying to avoid those emotions is also likely to harm your creativity.
Melancholic and neurotic moods tend to generate some of the raw material for original and innovative thinking. In very general terms, at least, happy people are typically less driven to create, so there’s sometimes a trade-off between feeling good and producing something original, innovative, or valuable to others. In fact, history is littered with the astounding scientific and artistic achievements of some pretty glum, dissatisfied people–who let their minds wander.