… And How It Helps Me To Think

I usually don’t take anything to read when going for a ride on the subway.  And I don’t listen to books on tape while driving or running in the park. Typically I defend myself to friends who think I’m wasting time by claiming, “I need the time to worry.”

New research, however, gives me a better excuse.  When the mind is wandering, the brain’s “default network” takes over, according to Eric Klinger at the University of Minnesota, and “this system keeps the individual’s larger agenda fresher in mind.”  That’s an evolutionary advantage, he suggests, “increasing the likelihood that the other goal pursuits will remain intact and not get lost in the shuffle of pursuing many goals.”  (See, “Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind.”)

But the report on mind wandering in The New York Times, suggests there is also reason to believe that it encourages the creative process.  According to Dr. Jonathan Schooler, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, “it may help if you go jogging, take a walk, do some knitting or just sit around doodling, because relatively undemanding tasks seem to free your mind to wander productively.”

“For creativity you need your mind to wander,” Dr. Schooler says, “but you also need to be able to notice that you’re mind wandering and catch the idea when you have it.”  Waking up from day dreams and reflecting on where your mind went when it wandered is essential for making use of this process.

It’s good to have to have scientific evidence for the value of mind wandering, but it is something many of us who work with our minds have intuitively understood.  When I say I need time to “worry,” I don’t mean I want to ruminate obsessively.  I want to find out what’s on my mind, not so different from asking a psychotherapy patient to tell me “What comes to mind?” or “Where did your mind go just then?”

The mind is always working.  We can often benefit from just letting it go about its business, and then looking in on it when we need a little extra help.