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Want a Creative Boost? Let Your Mind Run
The Upside of Mental Drift. Reviewing ‘Mindwandering’ by Moshe Bar
With the development of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in the early 1990s, brain scientists were finally able to take a real peek at what goes on below the bone dome. fMRI measures bloodflow in the brain, providing a glimpse of what areas of the brain are working during any given task. By correlating different activities with these hotspots, researchers have developed more sophisticated theories of what particular brain structures do.
But cognitive neuroscientist Moshe Bar points out an important accidental discovery in those early days of the technology.
A Surprising Discovery
When test subjects were positioned in fMRI machines for observation, researchers would have them work on a series of tasks, resting between each. They were primarily interested in what was happening when the subjects were on task. But then someone had the bright idea of studying what all those brains were doing between tasks.
“Researchers started to notice that the brain is actually vigorously active when there is no specific task to perform,” says Bar, “often more intensely than during the experimental conditions themselves. . . .” The unemployed brain is a vagrant! These scientists had discovered the brain’s default mode network—DMN for short (neuroscientists love an acronym).
Thanks to the DMN the brain is always on, always working. We probably know this from practical experience, even if we couldn’t explain the mechanisms driving it. Focus on a goal or a task and our thoughts tend to progress with our project. But distractions easily derail us.
Say you’re working on a spreadsheet and suddenly can’t recall if you have any cash for the valet for your date this evening. You need to swing by the ATM (a different sort of acronym) and get a twenty. But you’ll need to break the twenty. Is there a place on the way home for that? Probably the coffee shop. You hate their coffee—all trendy blonde roasts. The place is also really noisy, and it’s impossible to get a table. Then again, it’s also where you first met the person you’re seeing again tonight! You lean back, imagining how the evening will go. You’re just thirteen seconds in and already a long way from your spreadsheet.
Bar has spent most of his career studying this sort of mental drift to understand what’s happening in the brain when our train of thought seems to chug along with no particular destination. Bar’s book Mindwandering distills decades of discovery and offers a fascinating study of how thoughts take shape and how we can shape our thoughts.
Types of Thoughts
What are those thoughts? Bar mentions several specific types.
Emotive. Our brains are constantly interpreting signals from the body concerning what and how we feel, something we’ve explored before in Leonard Mlodinow’s excellent book on emotions (reviewed here).
Associative. One idea leads to another . . . and to another and to another ad infinitum. The brain is an association machine, constantly finding connections between current inputs and past experience to both make sense of the present and plan for the future.
Ruminative. We get stuck on some of those associations. Unlike periods of focus, rumination tends to lack any sort of progress. We just circle around some notion or memory. These thoughts might point to unresolved issues that need our attention, but constant rumination tends to darken the mood.
Obsessive. When we fixate on something, our thoughts can become obsessive. The more we resist, the more they persist. Sometimes this is related to a disorder—think OCD (sorry, another acronym!)—but it could just be your brain’s way of nagging you about something important.
Intrusive. Involuntary, unbidden, usually unpleasant thoughts barge in on us from time to time. You see, for instance, an image in the news you can’t unsee and it jolts you at random for weeks.
Bar points out our brains are conditioned to process all these thoughts and, possibly excluding the intrusive variety, they all make positive contributions to our ongoing thought processes. Sometimes they go too far. If we’re overly associative, say, we’re likely to have trouble paying attention in meetings. If we’re overly ruminative, we’re likely to ruin that date.
If our brains have developed to process these sorts of thoughts, what purpose do they serve?
What Thoughts Are For
The first is managing our sense of self. My wife, Megan, always says, “Nobody’s thinking about you as much as you’re thinking about you.” And it’s true. The main object of our thoughts is the self; the DMN is always dragging it into the picture. We use self-talk, self-assessment, and self-negotiation to process our past, navigate our present, and plan our future. The best arguments are, after all, the ones you have with yourself. As our minds wander around the self, they help us shape and develop it.
Next, Bar says our DMN is busy helping us understand others, especially in the realm of communication and guessing intentions. If you were, for instance,
cutting the rug Down at place called The Jug With a girl named Linda Lou When in walked a man With a gun in his hand And he was looking for you know who
then you probably know it’s time to excuse yourself, as Ronnie Van Zant so eloquently suggested in just such a circumstance.
Thankfully, the cues in interpersonal exchanges are usually less obvious than a pointed revolver. But the tradeoff is that we use up a lot of mental resources puzzling out motives and intentions from vaguer signs. No surprise then our mind wanders to what someone said earlier in the day, or why they used that particular gif in a text, or what their absence from the meeting might actually mean—let alone what so and so might think if we do such and such.
But don’t let it alone. Our brains are constantly trying to answer the question, what’s next? (See Beau Lotto’s book, Deviate.) Understanding ourselves and others are essential to that enterprise, and so is imagining the future, which, according to Bar, is another key function of the DMN.
We need imagined futures to serve present plans. Among its many gifts, mindwandering allows the brain to predict future states without much intentional effort. Our minds drift to what might happen in any given scenario precisely so we’re ready for whatever scenario does materialize. (Incidentally, scan the types of thought from above—emotive, associative, and the rest—and you can probably see how each might come into play in these scenarios.)
The brain proactively tries to match past and present experiences to guess future happenings. Sometimes, it draws spot-on connections. Other times they’re wild stretches. But no matter how accurate, this sort of prospection is a key means we use to generate the feeling of certainty in an highly uncertain world.
Of course, certainty’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
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Creative Frame of Mind
We can approach the uncertainty we face with a closed or open mindset. Bar calls the first exploitative and the second explorative. An exploitative mindset rigidly seeks to employ what it already knows to extract whatever value it can from a given context. An explorative mindset, however, seeks to discover new and previously unknown value.
Both have their place. Applying proven patterns of thought in the appropriate contexts yields reliable results. But combining novel configurations of what’s already known with fresh external data sometimes offers bigger advantages.
One advantage is improved mood. Being more broadly associative—letting your mind run, following the DMN where it leads—is linked to positive outlook. “Positive mood as reward for broad thinking might be nature’s way of encouraging us to explore, learn, and be creative,” says Bar. “Think broader to feel better.” And it works the other direction, also. When we feel good, we tend to think more broadly.
Creativity represents another advantage. “Making novel associations is one of the key elements of creativity,” Bar notes. The more we resort to rigid patterns of thought, the less likely innovative connections will come to mind. But we can flip that. Innovative connections come as we get more associative. Bar and his team were actually able induce mindwandering in test subjects using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS—sorry, couldn’t be helped). Better cognitive performance resulted from the stimulation.
These connections between mindwandering, positive mood, and creativity come together in a fascinating insight about the human need to create. Bar points out that people aren’t satisfied by consumption. Instead, he says, we have a compulsion to create:
Most of what we do regularly involves some creation or production: from making food to fixing a leaky shower, from writing a letter to gardening. And so, even thinking is an act of creation. New ideas, new inventions, new plans you make while your mind wanders are all products that your mind created. . . . All those mental simulations our minds are constantly engaged in result in new connections inside the cortex. Those imagined experiences that remain in memory are sheer acts of creation.
In numerous domains of our existence, it seems that we humans need to be on the move. We can’t sit still for long, we cannot focus on the same theme for an extended duration, and even our eyes move all the time. . . . Similarly, our mind does not pause and needs to move forward almost compulsively by creating more and more new and useful things such as thoughts, objects, and actions. Creation is movement, which is vital for our well-being.
So how do we improve the quality of our mindwandering without resorting to transcranial direct current stimulation? Bar recommends a few basic approaches.
Improving Our Mindwandering
The first is meditation. Mindfulness seems to allow associative thinking to do its thing while also quieting the less helpful aspects of emotive, ruminative, obsessive, and intrusive thoughts. As associations form, we label the thought and let it pass out of mind. Bar is quick to admit this isn’t easy and rarely fun but insists it’s worth trying. We can think of it as a form of mental training.
Second, immersion. Immersing ourselves in a given experience parallels meditation. By diffusing our attention within a moment, we avoid distraction and let our minds take in more of the experience; while our attention is constrained by the moment, we gain more from it than we would if we focused outside the experience.
Finally, changing our frame. We can intentionally see a set of facts from multiple frames. And we can also change our frame of mind to one that better serves our immediate needs. The narrow, focused frame helps with executing tasks and avoiding, say, bears. The broad, open frame helps us both imagine new ways of executing old tasks and conceptualize altogether new tasks—while also reminding us of Yogi, Smokey, Pooh, and Paddington. which could prove useful provided we’re not running from one of their relatives.
The human mind is endlessly fascinating. It’s adaptable to a billion different contexts—far more, actually—and capable of enriching any single moment with the miracle of thought. The win in Moshe Bar’s Mindwandering is recognizing that a tendency for which some of us might shame ourselves—letting our mind run—turns out to be a superpower for mood enhancement and creativity. And like most any innate skill, it’s something we can improve and optimize.
Whether it’s never-ending acronyms, Lynyrd Skynyrd, or Yogi Bear, there’s probably a connection in there with the breakthrough you need. Or at least some amusement to boost your mood. Your DMN knows what you need.
Mindwandering pairs well with several other books I’ve review so far this year. Should the mood strike, feel free to explore the following:
Leonard Mlodinow, Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking
Caroline Williams, Move! The New Science of Body over Mind
Michael Blastland, The Hidden Half: How the World Conceals Its Secrets
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