Daydreaming nurtures creativity?

Back in 2010, I read a charming article in the New York Times about a bunch of neuroscientists bravely disentangling themselves from their technology (email, cellphones, laptops, …) and going into the wilderness (rafting down the San Juan River) in order to get a better understanding of how heavy use of digital technology might change the way we think, and whether we can reverse the problem by immersing ourselves in nature.

One of those psychologists has now co-authored a study involving 56 people who participated in four- to six-day wilderness hiking, electronic-device-free, trips organized by Outward Bound schools. The study looked at the effect of this experience on creativity, comparing the performance of 24 participants who took the 10-item creativity test the morning before they began the trip, and 32 who took the test on the morning of the trip's fourth day.

Those few days in the wilderness increased performance on the task by 50% — from an average of 4.14 pre-trip to 6.08.

However, much as I like the idea, I have to say my faith in these results is not particularly great, given that there was a significant age difference between the two groups. The average age of the pre-hike group was 34, and that of the in-hike group 24. Why the researchers didn’t try to control this I have no idea, but I’m not convinced by their statement that they statistically accounted for age effects — which are significant.

Moreover, this study doesn’t tell us whether the effect was due to the experience of nature, simply the experience of doing something different, or the unplugging from technology. Still, it adds to the growing research exploring Attention Restoration Theory.

view from my office window
View from my window

I’m a great fan of nature myself, and count myself very fortunate to live surrounded by trees and within five minutes of a stream and bush (what people in other countries might call ‘woods’, though New Zealand bush is rather different). However, whether or not it is a factor in itself, there’s no denying other factors are also important — not least, perhaps, the opportunity to let your mind wander. “Mind wandering”, it has been suggested, evokes a unique mental state that allows otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation, and stimulates problem-solving.

This is supported, perhaps, in another recent study. Again, I’m not putting too much weight on this, because it was a small study and most particularly because it was presented at a conference and very few details are available. But it’s an interesting idea, so let me give you the bullet points.

In the first study, 40 people were asked to copy numbers out of a telephone directory for 15 minutes, before being to complete a more creative task (coming up with different uses for a pair of polystyrene cups). Those who had first copied out the telephone numbers (the most boring task the researchers could think of) were more creative than a control group of 40 who had simply been asked to come up with uses for the cups, with no preamble.

In a follow-up experiment, an extra experimental group was added — these people simply read the phone numbers. While, once again, those copying the numbers were more creative than the controls, those simply reading the numbers scored the most highly on the creativity test.

The researchers suggest that boring activities that allow the most scope for daydreaming can lead to the most creativity. (You can read more about this study in the press release and in a Huffington Post article by one of the researchers.)

Remembering other research suggesting that thinking about your experiences when living abroad can make you more creative, I would agree, in part, with this conclusion: I think doing a boring task can help creativity, if you are not simply bogged down in the feeling of boredom, if you use the time granted you to think about something else — but it does matter what you think about!

The wilderness experiment has two parts to it: like the boring task, but to a much greater degree (longer span of time), it provides an opportunity to let your mind run free; like the living-abroad experiment, it puts you in a situation where you are doing something completely different in a different place. I think both these things are very important — but the doing-something-different is more important than putting yourself in a boring situation! Boredom can easily stultify the brain. The significance of the boredom study is not that you should do boring tasks to become more creative, but that, if you are doing something boring (that doesn’t require much of your attention), you should let your thoughts wander into happy and stimulating areas, not just wallow in the tedium!

But of course the most important point of these studies is a reminder that creativity - the ability to think divergently - is not simply something a person 'has', but that it flowers or dwindles in different circumstances. If you want to encourage your ability to think laterally, to solve problems, to be creative, then you need to nurture that ability.

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