We often think that good ideas are random events. We might say, for instance, that “the idea just popped into my head” or it “just occurred to me.” We may convince ourselves that we’re not the authors of our own ideas. They just happen.
But having a good idea is really no different than any other skill. The more we practice, the better we become. We can train ourselves to create more ideas. The more ideas we produce, the more chance we have of producing good ones. As Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has remarked, “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
So how do you create ideas and, especially, how do you create good ones? The first step is to pay attention. We all have good ideas from time to time. Pay attention to what you’re doing when you have a good idea. Then do more of that.
With that thought in mind, I’ve asked the students in several editions of my Critical Thinking class what they were doing the last time they had a good idea. Here’s a list, in no particular order.
Taking a walk – I haven’t kept precise count but this is certainly one of the most frequently mentioned activities. It’s also my favorite. Whenever I need a good idea, I go for a walk.
Out for a run – like walking, only faster.
Going for a drive – also fairly popular and may be related to highway hypnosis.
Taking a shower – another frequent one.
Reading – this one comes up fairly often, especially reading in bed before falling asleep. As I’ve noted before, sleepy people seem more creative.
Meditation – most of my students don’t meditate but the ones who do often mention it as a time when they get good ideas.
On the subway or bus, commuting – a routine action repeated most every business day; apparently the mind wanders.
On the elevator – this was a student from New York where I gather they take long elevator rides.
Lifting weights at the gym – I suspect that System 1 is lifting the weights while System 2 is rummaging around in more interesting topics.
Dreaming – this comes up occasionally. As one student put it, “I had a fabulous idea for work and had to wake up and write it down.”
Listening to others and listening to colleagues – nobody has told me that they have a good idea when talking. A number of students have told me the ideas come when they’re listening.
Mowing the lawn – it’s a good time to let your mind wander.
Over a cup of coffee in the quiet morning before the kids get up – what a delicious time.
Sitting on the couch talking and strategizing the next day’s plan with my wife – another lovely moment.
I’m struck by how many of the idea-generating activities involve motion. We’re walking or running or driving the car or riding the subway. We’re moving through space and there’s a lot to stimulate our System 1. Yet we don’t have to do much consciously; our System 2 is free to wander. We’re daydreaming but we don’t realize it.
Many of the activities find us alone – like driving or meditating – or alone in a crowd – like riding the subway. We seem to need some stimulus but we also need to withdraw into a quiet, inner space.
Not many students have mentioned having good ideas while in a meeting. But when they do, they often mention the alone-in-a-crowd experience. They may not know many people in the meeting or they’ve mentally checked out for a while. There’s some stimulus but the mind is wandering.
It occurs to me that most of these activities are a form of meditation. We don’t think of it as such but we’re occupying System 1 with routine activities – not unlike chanting a mantra – and allowing System 2 to wander. We don’t think of ourselves as a nation of meditators but perhaps we are.
So, how about it? What were you doing the last time you had a good idea?
Is your mind ever really at rest? Does it ever switch completely off? Apparently not. Something is always going on. You may be focused or unfocused, thinking or dreaming, but something is always happening.
When we’re engaged in an attention-absorbing activity (AAA) – and especially a pleasurable AAA – the task-positive network kicks in. It helps us stay focused, pay attention, and accomplish specific tasks. It generally keeps us conscious of what we’re doing.
When we’re not engaged in an AAA, the default network kicks in, allowing our mind to wander. We can daydream, think about the future, “correct” mistakes we made in the past, and generally “zone out”. It’s what happens when your mind wanders away while reading or driving. It’s “negatively correlated” with parts of the brain that process visual stimuli, which may very well be related to inattentional blindness.
On average, some 30% of our waking time is devoted to daydreaming. The default network switches on and the task-positive network switches off. (They can’t both be on at the same time). Often, we are not aware that we are daydreaming, unless someone asks, a penny for your thoughts. Then we realize that we were somewhere else. Researchers on daydreaming essentially offer a penny for your thoughts at random intervals.
Why would we spend so much time daydreaming? It’s not completely clear. But people who have suffered long-term stress (like PTSD or child abuse) or who have some forms of autism seem to have difficulty activating their default network and daydreaming. As Josie Glausiusz writes in Scientific American, “The default network appears to be essential to generating our sense of self, suggesting that daydreaming plays a crucial role in who we are and how we integrate the outside word into our inner lives.”
Daydreaming may also be related to creativity. Researchers at UC Santa Barbara used the Unusual Uses Task (UUT) to measure creativity under different conditions. (The UUT present you with a common object – like a brick – and asks you to come up with as many unusual uses as possible). The researchers found that “higher levels of mind wandering” were associated with improved performance on the UUT. On the other hand, thinking specifically about the UUT did not improve performance.
To promote creativity through daydreaming, however, it appears that we need to be conscious of our daydreaming. That’s not as easy as it sounds. When I’m daydreaming, I am indeed zoned out and the bright ideas I get while in that zone may never pop into my consciousness. The trick seems to be to ask the penny for your thoughts question of yourself. As you return from your daydream, think about what you were thinking about and capture it consciously. You may find a good solution to a problem … or a good topic for your blog.
I’m a morning person. I wake up every day full of plans and optimism. I just know I can solve the problems of the world today. (Yes, I’m a bit obnoxious). In the evening, on the other hand, I run out of gas. I like to do a little light reading and go to bed early. A psychologist would say that the morning is my “optimal” time while the evening is my “non-optimal” time.
It seems logical that I would be more creative during my optimal time, no? Well, … maybe not. According to two psychology professors, Mareike B. Wieth and Rose T. Zacks, your non-optimal times may be your better times for creativity.
In a research paper published in 2011 (click here or see full citation below), Wieth and Zacks determined the optimal times — morning or evening — of 428 randomly selected students and then asked them to complete, three “analytic” problems and three “insight” problems. Analytic problems “…require the solver to ‘grind out the solution’ by searching through and narrowing the problem space.” In other words, you start on a path and stay on that path until you find the solution.
Insight problems, on the other hand, “are often solved suddenly with a ‘flash of illuminance’ … or what has also been called an ‘‘Aha’’ experience where the solution seems to just pop into mind.” The process of solving an insight problem is also different. People typically start on a given path, hit a wall, and then jump to a different path. As the authors phrase it, “…to move past the impasse, the solver must break away from his or her focus on the current representation of the problem and find an alternative way of structuring the problem space.”
Students completed their six problems at randomly assigned times. Some completed the problems during their optimal times, others during their non-optimal times. The results varied by problem type. Students solved analytical problems better when they worked during their optimal time. For insight problems, however, students were more successful when they worked during their non-optimal times.
Why would that be? Wieth and Zacks hypothesize that it has to with “…inhibitory processes [that] control the flow of information from thought and perception.” Simply put, we can focus better during our optimal times because our inhibitory processes block out distracting information. That’s good for grind-it-out problems — our inhibitory processes help us focus on the solution path. With insight problems, on the other hand, distracting information can actually help us jump to the right path. During our non-optimal times, our inhibitory processes are less effective. We’re less focused and our mind wanders more. More “distracting” information enters our thoughts. All of that helps us discern other paths that can lead to an Aha experience.
So, do you want to be more creative? Just stay up late and let your mind wander. That’s not so hard.
Mareike B. Wieth & Rose T. Zacks (2011): Time of day effects on problem solving: When the non-optimal is optimal, Thinking & Reasoning, 17:4, 387-401. This work was supported by National Institute on Aging Grant R37 AG04306.