Jonathan Schooler, the psychologist who helped pioneer the study of insight, has recently begun studying the benefits of daydreams. His lab has demonstrated that people who consistently engage in more daydreaming score significantly higher on measures of creativity. To evaluate daydreaming, he gave subjects a slow section of War and Peace, and then timed how long it took them to start thinking about something else. What these tests measure is someone’s ability to find hidden relationships that can help them solve a problem. That kind of thinking is the essence of creativity. And it turns out that people who daydream a lot are much better at it. However, not all daydreams are equally effective at inspiring new ideas.
In his experiments, Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type occurs when people notice they are daydreaming only when prodded by the researcher. Although they’ve been told to press a button as soon as they’re minds start to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type of daydreaming occurs when people catch themselves during the experiment. They notice they’re daydreaming on their own. According to Schooler’s data, individuals who are unaware that their minds have started wandering don’t exhibit increased creativity. The point is that it is not enough to just daydream. Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream, you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative thought.
Productive daydreaming requires a delicate mental balancing act. On the one hand, translating boredom into a relaxed form of thinking leads to a thought process characterized by unexpected connections. A moment of monotony can become a rich source of insights. On the other hand, letting the mind wander so far away that it gets lost, isn’t useful. Even in the midst of an entertaining daydream, you need to maintain a foothold in the real world.
- Jonah Lehrer, Imagine: How Creativity Works
Schooler actually buys what he’s selling. Every day, he schedules his drive down to the Pacific Coast. He leaves his iPhone in his car, and just walks, letting his mind wander. He says it’s where all his best ideas are born.