The benefits of mind wandering
Commerce often requires quick results, measurement of ‘performance indicators’ and – the big one – output, where creativity is enhanced by periods of curiosity with little measurable outcome.
Who can blame commerce for demanding bang for its buck? The raison d’etre for most companies is to ultimately make profit.
Problem is, much of the work of a creative project is done during periods of incubation, which can’t be measured and therefore cannot be included as ‘work’ in the commercial sense.
This means incubation periods may not be taken into account by the consultant calculating their work on a project.
Much of my work as a writer looks like a pyramid, with several incubation periods, most of which don’t happen at my desk, or even during any periods in my day that have the appearance of ‘work’.
There are no measurable work outputs during the incubation periods.
And the problem with this is commerce demands the creative process be ‘all doing’, with no accounting for incubation.
“ I don’t read music. I don’t write it. So I wander around on the guitar until something starts to present itself. ”
Incubation and mind-wandering
A key part of incubation is mind-wandering, a cognitive phenomenon, also known as ‘stream of thought’ or ‘daydreaming’, where the mind is not focussed on one specific task, and is instead engaged in the cascade of thoughts from one to the other.
The importance of mind-wandering to the creative process has been articulated by science.
In fact, mind-wandering is one of the earliest observations about the psychology of creativity, with William James noting as early as 1890 its fundamental role in human consciousness.
More recently, studies have shown that people prone to mind wandering may score higher on tests of creativity than those with more focus.
The benefits of mind-wandering have also been captured by anecdotal evidence. For instance, French mathematician Henri Poincaré in his book Science and Method notes this episode of mind- wandering and its outcome:
At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it, that the transformation that I had used to define the Fuchsian functions were identical with those of non-Euclidean geometry.” (1908)
This sort of anecdotal evidence about how ideas ‘occur’ is abundant.
You’ve probably even experienced moments when, straining at your desk trying to solve a creative problem, you take a break to do another less demanding task, and the answer comes to you.
Seemingly from nowhere.
Given the space to wander, your mind is less focussed and therefore able to jump between ideas without constraint. This fluid movement between ideas is the very essence of the creative process.
The problem with mindfulness
So where does this leave mindfulness, the fashionable psychophysiological strategy used to focus the mind and anchor wandering thoughts?
Mindfulness is useful for minimising anxiety, promoting calmness and for facilitating the kind of problem solving that requires focused, analytical thought.
What about creative problem solving, which doesn’t necessarily benefit from logical, linear thought?
Is mindfulness good for creativity?
Psychologist Jonathan Schooler suggests mindfulness and creativity are negatively correlated and that some degree of wandering is good for a mind that needs to make abstract, surprising connections.
The question of how much wandering is enough and how to factor that into the demands of the commercial world remains open to further research.
Many workplaces, even in so-called ‘creative’ ones, require at least the auspices of dedication and focus to a task and project, leaving little leeway for the daydreaming creative who appears to be doing nothing and hasn’t produced tangible results for any given period.
And maybe this is why many creatives choose to work outside of the commercial realm altogether.
By unifying the gap between commercial and creative interests, creatives are more likely to be accommodated comfortably within capitalist, profit-oriented structures.
This benefit companies too. Studies have continually shown the advantages of creative skills for corporate success.
Though unification requires compromise (as is often the case).
For the creative, this means appreciating the need for production, for getting things done and sometimes eschewing perfection and artfulness for outcomes.
For businesses, this means allowing for incubation periods. For example, designing workflow to allow for incubation periods scattered amongst the various stages of large creative projects.