Wander into creativity?

This 2019 US study investigated the context of creative ideas:

“Creative inspiration routinely occurs during moments of mind wandering. Approximately 20% of ideas occurred in this manner.

Although ideas that occurred while participants were both on task and mind wandering did not differ in overall quality, there were several dimensions on which they did consistently differ. Ideas that occurred while mind wandering were reported to be experienced with a greater sense of ‘aha’ and were more likely to involve overcoming an impasse.

The present findings are consistent with the view that spontaneous task-independent mind wandering represents a source of the inventive ideas that individuals have each day. This potential function of mind wandering may help to explain why a mental state that can be associated with significant negative outcomes is nevertheless so ubiquitous.”

“Would you say the idea felt like an ‘aha!’ moment?” and “How creative do you feel the idea was?” were the closest items to emotional measures. “How important do you think this idea is?” and several months later “How important has the idea proven to be overall?” were used to measure importance.

https://labs.psych.ucsb.edu/schooler/jonathan/sites/labs.psych.ucsb.edu.schooler.jonathan/files/pubs/0956797618820626.pdf “When the Muses Strike: Creative Ideas of Physicists and Writers Routinely Occur During Mind Wandering”

I came across this study from its reference in How Productivity Apps Can Make Us Less Productive (And Less Happy).


The study’s design missed opportunities to discover sources of creative ideas and feelings of importance. It focused on effects and intentionally disregarded causes, despite asserting that “mind wandering represents a source of inventive ideas.”

Experiments were subjectively biased for a framework that considered ideas as originating solely from a person’s thinking brain. A framework like Primal Therapy that demonstrated how ideas may arise as defenses against feelings wasn’t considered, although relevant.

Let’s use the finding “Ideas that occurred while mind wandering were more likely to involve overcoming an impasse” as an example for a Primal Therapy framework’s view:

  1. A person who has a seemingly unsolvable work problem probably encounters feelings of helplessness.
  2. Staying busy with tasks can distract them from these feelings.
  3. During times of less cognitive activity, though, these feelings can have more impetus.
  4. The resultant discomfort will trigger ideas to help ward off helpless feelings.

Regarding importance judgments, there are many needs a person develops and tries to satisfy as substitutes for real needs that weren’t fulfilled. I’ve focused on the need to feel important in blog posts such as Your need to feel important will run your life, and you’ll never feel satisfied.

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