UC Berkeley researchers find link between mind-wandering and creativity

Zachary Irving/Courtesy

After two years studying the topic, UC Berkeley researchers and others have published a review on how thoughts flow when the mind is idle — calling into question the stigma surrounding mind-wandering.

Since the 13th century, mind-wandering has been historically defined by both philosophers and neuroscientists as “task-unrelated thought,” where one’s cognitive subconscious is on an unproductive, auto-pilot mode, according to Zachary Irving, a co-author of the review and UC Berkeley postdoctoral scholar. Irving said the review showed that contrary to popular belief, mind-wandering actually poses multiple benefits to the human mind, such as fostering creativity and allowing humans to better understand their waking thoughts.

The review, which was also conducted by researchers at University of British Columbia, Cornell University and the University of Colorado Boulder, included theoretical synthesis and analysis as well as empirical review of evidence from neuroimaging related to mind-wandering.

In the long run, mind-wandering helps one to cultivate insights, said Kalina Christoff, the review’s lead author and professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia. It creates a mode of thinking that facilitates bringing together different thoughts, and it helps one humanize experiences.

According to Dan Lurie, a doctoral student in the campus cognitive neuroscience program, people’s minds are wandering about 50 percent of the time.

“The argument goes that if (our minds wander) so often, it serves a purpose and maybe … it is not by definition maladaptive” Lurie said. “Mind-wandering lets us plan for the future, it lets us consider our present and it lets us reflect on our past.”

According to Christoff, mind-wandering is often perceived negatively because of the cultural conception that if people do not have concrete proof of their efforts, they are not being productive. Christoff added that mind wandering has benefits but they are not immediate.

The proposed framework of thought-flow not only helps people to reconceptualize how mind-wandering is commonly perceived, but also may  provide a more comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes and consequences of  disorders, such as ADHD, according to Nathan Spreng, a co-author of the study and director of Cornell University’s Laboratory of Brain and Cognition.

Irving said disorders such as ADHD that involve excessive mind-wandering are extensions of normal thinking. He added that people with these disorders can provide different sets of skills and new perspectives.

“You have this classic idea of a student attending a class and looking out the window and totally zoned out thinking about something else,”  Spreng said. “We are trying to reframe the idea of mind-wandering. Really, it’s just one form of thought in this broader umbrella of spontaneous thoughts.”

Contact Mariah De Zuzuarregui at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @mdezuzuarregui.