A Wandering Mind Can Be Hard at Work

July 13, 2009

WetwareI've always been an avid daydreamer--so much so that my mind can wander off at the most inopportune moments, like in the middle of a conversation. But I've always come up with my best ideas and even made difficult decisions in the midst of totally idle thought. So it doesn't surprise me that a new brain-scanning study shows that a wandering mind isn't idle at all: in fact, it's hard at work moving you toward a flash of insight. The Wall Street Journal reports:

By most measures, we spend about a third of our time daydreaming, yet our brain is unusually active during these seemingly idle moments. Left to its own devices, our brain activates several areas associated with complex problem solving, which researchers had previously assumed were dormant during daydreams. Moreover, it appears to be the only time these areas work in unison.

Of course, just sitting around doing nothing doesn't mean you'll solve the world's problems. In fact, the exact ingredients of the "Eureka moment" are not yet known, but just as luck favors the prepared, so does insight--and it's not just expertise that matters. Your attitude factors in as well.

Even before we are presented with a problem, our state of mind can affect whether or not we will likely resort to insightful thinking. People in a positive mood were more likely to experience an insight, researchers at Drexel and Northwestern found.

Over the last few weeks I've been waist-high in a new programming project, and after a few hours of intense PHP-wrangling I find it super-helpful to gaze out the window or at the ceiling and daydream about nothing in particular with a notebook and pen nearby. That's the time I'm most likely to come up with that bugfix, data structure design, or logic flow that wasn't clear in the heat of the work.

A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight [The Wall Street Journal]

The preface is that what follows is only speculation and brainstorming, because I have no scientfic basis to say this nor I have similar skills.

I think is a way mind uses to use spare or costless resources for creating a sort of “cache” that permits faster renderings of real thoughts.

Sometimes when you start wandering is very similar to engaging autopilot. It seems that mind is taking control of your thoughts and start making (il)logical links, where some times is difficult to reconstruct th efull path used to get there.

I think when this happens is a sort of trigger hit by thoughts that starts this process, and by doing this, connections arre stimulated. and this solutioning helps solving problems faster because some (or all nodes) of the possible solution have been explored before.

This post as a comment also at

hotrao [+10]
Jul 13 09 at 12:53 pm

I’ve found the exact same thing. Typically, I’m lucky enough to be able to get away from my desk. I try to sit only when I’m doing productive things, like tearing through my todo list or programming.

I got quoted in an itworld article a few weeks back for this same topic, that was sort of fun. http://www.itworld.com/development/67857/programming-magic-rituals-and-habits-effective-programmers

There is actually a basis for this in cognitive neuroscience.

First, the working memory is very limited. As it gets full, we tend to slow our processing down (controlled by the central executive processes).

As that happens, we often get frustrated and begin to think poorly. This is toxic to anything worthwhile, be it coding, writing an essay, or just speaking in front of people. All of these can be high-load environments naturally, adding to the trouble here.

When we look out a window or allow daydreaming, that helps to clear the working memory and frees up the central processes to focus exclusively on processing. It’s very much akin to the computer that occasionally needs a reboot because the memory gets full. Looking out the window helps the memory reboot.

Then, naturally, since we’re back to thinking right, we often come up with the answer.

The trouble is when we fail to take the time to process, and we end up in cognitive overload. This can be trouble, as the working memory is forcibly emptied (natural coping mechanism) and we default back to the last thing we learned or were taught. No good.

Hope this helps a bit.


Chris Craft [+1]
Jul 13 09 at 4:39 pm

i find this fascinating, but true for me as well. i make robot art, and i find that when i am sitting idly, i tend to be building them in my head. it makes it much easier when i go into the studio, as i have seen some of the parts already in my daydreams.

Jul 14 09 at 1:19 pm

Thanks for the info, Chris. Interesting topic!

drmelho [+28]
Jul 15 09 at 5:02 pm

I ran across a cool quotation that addresses a very similar idea:

“Mostly, when you see programmers, they aren’t doing anything. One of the attractive things about programmers is that you cannot tell whether or not they are working simply by looking at them. Very often they’re sitting there seemingly drinking coffee and gossiping, or just staring into space. What the programmer is trying to do is get a handle on all the individual and unrelated ideas that are scampering around in his head.”

Charles M. Strauss

Jul 20 09 at 6:22 pm

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!