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a wandering mind needs somewhere to wander…

July 1, 2010

First: read this

Then, I guess the appropriate thing to do is to sit back and let all those brilliant ideas effortlessly come to you as you let your mind wander hither and fro… at least that is what it sounds like after reading this little piece in the NYT. Yeah, our minds wander naturally and effortlessly, but much of the time it does not lead to the types of insights that the authors of the piece note towards the end of the segment. Creativity does depend on this type of insight to some degree, but what they miss here is some indication of how important it is to PREPARE yourself to mind wander. They suggest going for a run, doing some knitting or doodling, and just letting the creativity happen.This is the “neato-presto” version of how creativity and insight operate. It is not that easy.

Before mind wandering will have any sort of payoff, it is critical to immerse yourself in effortful and directed contemplation of the tasks and challenges at hand. In a sense, the mind needs somewhere to wander, and if you haven’t populated your mind with lots of interesting and relevant bits of knowledge, you’ll end up wandering to the land of ’70s sitcom trivia or why your neighbors leave their garbage cans out instead of wandering towards insights into an interesting topic for the paper you need to write or a solution for the problem that has plagued the project you have to complete.The most creative individuals tend to be people who have extensive experience and knowledge within an area (often times they have more than one area of expertise). They combine that extensive knowledge base with a tendency to inquire and seek out multiple perspectives. When mind wandering occurs within these types of prepared minds (remember that there are lots of ways and topics that you can be an expert in), then insights can occur.

The mind does have some really impressive and powerful abilities to make connections, take new perspectives, and uncover previously unnoticed solutions (see both the popular press versions, e.g. Gladwell’s Blink, and the more experimental work of John Bargh and Ap Dijksterhuis). However, I think it is important to keep in mind, when your mind is not wandering, how important doing things (reading, observing, etc.) that have direct connections to your goals (writing a paper, building a birdhouse) is. Sitting around and waiting for insights is not a solution in and of itself.

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