Ideas are slippery things. Faced with the proverbial blank page we so often come up short, only for inspiration to hit us hours later on the drive home. Almost everyone has experienced some version of this scenario. Ask people where they get their best ideas, and you’re more likely to hear tales of bathrooms and train journeys than boardrooms and work meetings.
But don’t worry, this isn’t a case of “sod’s law” – there’s a good reason why great ideas crop up in mundane moments rather than opportune ones, and it’s all to do with the wiring of your brain. Understanding this is key to making ideas work for you. And the good news is it might just make ticking off your chore list a fertile opportunity for real inspiration.
The daydream secret
We live in a noisy world. With 24 hour news cycles, never ending notifications, and emails raining down at all hours of the day, there is very little respite for the focussed brain. We live in a constant cacophony of work and entertainment, prodding and poking our brains with ceaseless stimulation. Sadly, this is not good news for our creative abilities.
Your brain’s functioning can – at the most basic level – be separated into two areas: the default network, and the executive network. The default network is what we engage when we are doing something passive or repetitive; the executive network is what we engage when focussing on something more tricky or mentally demanding.
For a long time, researchers believed that the daydreaming state only involved the default network. That was until research from the University of British Columbia used fMRI scanners to see what is actually going on in the brain when we daydream. The findings surprised them: far from shutting down when engaged in daydreaming, both the default and the executive network light up.
Similarly, a study published in the scientific journal PNAS, found that mind wandering is associated with increased alpha waves in the brain’s frontal cortex (a neurological trait associated with higher performance on creativity tests). So, what does this all mean? Essentially, that there is a direct, cognitive link between the daydreaming state and idea production.
Think of it this way: when you’re focusing on a task or consciously trying to generate ideas, the brain operates like a spotlight. It powers down other areas of the brain in order to supply a more intensive focus to the task which is in front of you. But when you daydream, your whole brain emits a soft light – allowing for new connections, and abstract solutions which would never have occurred to you in a focused state.
It is also while mind wandering that we are able to access the subconscious mind, the region where we store a vast amount of information and emotional experience. Something the daydreaming mind taps into in order to produce truly novel ideas, from a wealth of neurological resources.
Wandering with direction
Knowing that daydreaming is linked to great ideas is half the work. The second part of this puzzle is putting that knowledge into practice by engaging in something I like to call “focused daydreaming” – in other words, getting into the daydream state with the specific intention of generating ideas or finding a solution to a tricky problem.
It’s important to note that the kind of daydreaming which is linked to creativity is totally distinct from rumination. In other words, dwelling on your worries or things that have happened in the past isn’t going to lead to any light bulb moments. What you’re aiming for is joyous, free-moving daydreaming. The kind where one thought leads you to another, like a frog jumping between lily-pads.
So, how to achieve that? Of course, staring out the window might work – but with the temptation of our devices, most people find sitting and literally doing nothing pretty challenging these days. Hence, so many people find ideas cropping up when they’re forced to engage in a task which is demanding enough that they can’t scroll their phone, but easy enough that they can let their mind wander. Think: driving, showering, washing up or even doodling.
Fill up the sink!
To use focused daydreaming to achieve creativity you must fuel up. This is your chance to give your subconscious mind something to chew on – and also to give it some direction. That might mean reviewing the problem you’re facing and some possible solutions, or it might involve something more abstract like the creation of a mood board or doing some general research to find inspiration.
Once you’ve filled up on content, it’s time to switch off. Pick your desired method for entering the daydreaming state – and remember that anything mundane or repetitive is especially helpful for achieving this (whether that be walking or tackling some chores).
The final step is to capture any and all ideas which come up during these mind wandering sessions! The results might just surprise you. In fact, the more you do it, the more refined the process becomes. And before you know it, doing the dishes will double up as an engine for navigating your way to your best ideas.