Every business owner wants to think of themselves as hard working and focused. Daydreaming is better left to artists, most MBAs would say. But a wealth of scientific data says that a wandering mind can lead to the kind of insight, that “aha!” moment, that every entrepreneur hopes for.
George de Mestral was out walking with his dogs when the idea for Velcro hit him. And, today, some of the world’s most successful companies, like Google, let their employees spend up to 20 percent of their time thinking about whatever they want. Many use that freedom to let their mind wander, hoping to generate big ideas.
When you’re awake, your mind wanders about 30 percent of the time, according to studies by psychologists from the University of North Carolina. Consciously you may be thinking about winning the lottery or scoring the winning run in your office softball league. But beneath the surface, your brain is often hard at work on big picture problems.
"People assumed that when your mind wandered it was empty," Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, told the Wall Street Journal. But after studying brain activity, Christoff found that, "Mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning with a complex problem."
While you’re zoned out, the brain activates what neuroscientists have identified as a “default network”. This area is especially active when people are reflecting on their personal experience or imagining the future, typical daydreaming preoccupations.
During complex reasoning, the mind switches to an “executive network”, which is better suited to pursuing immediate goals. This top down system is more efficient at rational problem solving, but unlikely to produce any unexpected breakthroughs.
Occasionally both areas of the brain will be active at the same time. This state is critical to generating that eureka moment. John Kounios of Drexel University looked at images of the brain at the moments before someone realizes the answer to a puzzle. What he found was a flash of activity from both the default and executive networks, almost as if the two were working in concert to produce the inspiration.
Jonah Lehrer, writing in the New Yorker, points to Joy Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London says he can tell when test subjects will solve a puzzle a full eight seconds before they arrive at the answer. A crucial clue was the appearance of alpha waves, which typically correlate with a state of relaxation.
There are lots of ways to foster this kind of creativity. Jogging, knitting or just doodling can relax the mind and set it off down a whimsical path. The trick, according to leading researcher Dr. Jonathan Schooler, is to be ready for a good idea when it comes.
“For creativity you need your mind to wander,” Schooler recently told the NY Times. “But you also need to be able to notice that you’re mind wandering and catch the idea when you have it. If Archimedes had come up with a solution in the bathtub but didn’t notice he’d had the idea, what good would it have done him?”