by Matthew E. May
Most people know that 3M’s Arthur Fry was not trying to invent the thing he invented in 1974–the Post-it Note–he was daydreaming in church.
As neuroscientists now know, and was conclusively shown in 2009, it’s when our minds wander that our brains do their best work–it’s when we’re not trying to think creatively that we’re often most creative. That’s when a still mysterious process in the right hemisphere of the brain behind the right ear makes connections between seemingly unrelated things, and those connections then bubble up as sudden insights, as if out of nowhere.
Jonah Lehrer, through our discussion of his just released new book Imagine: How Creativity Works, helped me sort out and make sense out of the latest discoveries, and what the results might imply for anyone wishing to better tap into their natural creativity.
“It’s not an accident that Arthur Fry was daydreaming when he came up with the idea for a sticky bookmark,” advises Jonah. “A more disciplined thought process wouldn’t have made the connection between the annoying little pieces of paper he used to bookmark his choir music and a weak adhesive another 3M engineer had developed. The errant daydream is what made Post-it notes possible.”
Jonah believes that the kind of thinking that enables these unexpected connections is the essence of creativity, and people who daydream seem to be better at it. The trick, though, is daydreaming and letting your mind wander, yet remaining aware enough to recognize a sudden insight when it comes. He makes the point that if you don’t notice an idea, it’s not useful daydreaming: “The reason Fry is such a good inventor—-he has more than twenty patents to his name, in addition to Post-it Notes—-isn’t simply that he’s a prolific mind-wanderer. It’s that he’s able to pay attention to his daydreams and to detect those moments when his daydreams generate insights.”
What that means is that not all daydreaming is created equal. Sitting around the house all day in one long protracted daydream won’t produce any insights, unless there was a certain density of attention paid to a specific problem that preceded it. It’s dedicated daydreaming—-purposeful mind-wandering that yields productive creativity.
“When our minds are at ease,” says Jonah, “we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve. While this pattern of attention is necessary when solving problems analytically, it actually prevents us from detecting the connections that lead to insights.”
Naturally, I’m curious about the role of daydreaming in Jonah’s own creative process.
“I think about this great Albert Einstein line,” he tells me. “The one about ‘creativity is the residue of time wasted.’ In my own creative process, I now feel much more comfortable knowing that when I’ve hit a wall, spent a day tinkering with the same stupid paragraph—that it’s time to take a walk and accept the fact that the most productive thing I can do will look really unproductive to everyone else. I now take more long, languid showers and don’t feel guilty when I take long walks in the middle of the day.
“Answers to my toughest problems come to me while I’m walking, when I’m not thinking about them. I know when I’m stuck that I’m not going to solve them by just playing with words on my computer screen—-I need to get away.
“I think about Jonathan Schooler, who has pioneered the study of daydreaming and mind wandering. He’s shown that people who daydream score higher on creativity tests. He takes a dedicated daydreaming walk every day on this beautiful bluff along the Pacific, just north of Santa Barbara. He talks about how he always knows when he desperately needs a daydreaming walk.
It’s the problems that really seem impossible, where there’s no feeling of knowing, no sense of a solution, no sense of progress—those really hard problem that are most likely going to be solved by long walks, showers, meditation, games of ping pong…those kinds of things.”
What Imagine and the literature about the neuroscience of creativity says is, when we need moments of insight, when we need to find far-reaching connections between seemingly unrelated ideas, when we’ve really hit the wall…that’s when we need to relax, to stop thinking about work, because the answer will only arrive when we stop looking for it.
The next time someone catches you daydreaming on the job and asks you why you’re not working, tell them that in fact you’re doing your best, most creative work.