Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Jonathan Schooler on why daydreaming is a good thing

Jonathan Schooler is a Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  According to Wikipedia, he “researches various topics that intersect aspects of both cognitive psychology and philosophy such as: Belief in free will, Meta-awareness, Mindfulness, Mind-Wandering, Memory, Creativity, and Emotion”.  We chatted by Skype.

How would you assess the state of health of our culture’s imagination in 2017?

I think there are many, many imaginative people in all different realms working on all sorts of different topics.  Humanity is just remarkable in its capacity for imagination when applied in particular areas.  I’m not sure that it’s as successful in terms of its organisation.

I mean, there are certain things where you see great organisation of imagination.  Movies. There was a wonderful movie not that long ago, Inside Out, which brought together psychologists and artists and animators and was this brilliant exploration of the human mind in a way that was hugely successful.  So you do see amazing mergers of imagination but certainly in other spheres, particularly currently in the political spectrum, it seems like people’s imagination may be … a little stunted.

Freud described daydreaming as “infantile”.  How is current research, your research included, proving him wrong?

In one sense, there really is a childlike playfulness to creative day dreaming.  When it’s done effectively, there’s wonder, there’s a certain sort of humility and just appreciating all that one doesn’t understand, and therefore that gives one the opportunity to try to imagine what things might be like.  A certain kind of childlike perspective maybe very useful for fostering imagination and productive day dreaming.

At the same time, I think it’s a misnomer to think that day dreaming is always a waste of time, or that it should be avoided at all costs.  Our research suggests that creative individuals routinely rely on mind wandering and day dreaming as a source of their creative inspiration.

You recently published research in Psychological Science where you worked with students.  Could you sum up for us what the findings were and its implications?

We gave people a creative problem which involves coming up with unusual uses for common objects such as a brick or a coat hanger.  We gave them a period of several minutes to come up with as many uses as they could, and then we introduced what’s known as an incubation interval, where we give them a break to do something else.

There were several different conditions.  We either filled that incubation interval with a demanding task where there was little opportunity for mind wandering, a non-demanding task where they did have the opportunity to mind wander, no task at all, where they just sat there, and then no break, where they just moved on to the second phase.  And then in the second phase they were given both the opportunity to come up with additional uses for the common objects they had already considered, as well as new objects that they had not generated uses for previously.

What we found was that the condition in which people were given a non-demanding task, that’s the one that really allowed their minds to wander while they were mildly engaged in something, led to the greatest benefit of the incubation interval.  That is, they came up with the most and the more creative additional uses for the objects that they had been coming up with uses for before.  This was even better than just sitting there idly, suggesting that there may be a sweet spot for engaging in creative mind wandering where you’re doing something mildly engaging but not extremely engaging.

This may be one of the reasons why people routinely report having creative ideas in the shower.  The shower is an activity.  It requires doing things but it‘s not a very demanding activity.  Or while taking a walk, or while gardening, or some other non-demanding task.  That seems to be a particularly fruitful way to foster creative incubation.

If people who are better at day dreaming are better at generating new ideas, how day dreamy is too day dreamy?  What’s the optimal amount of day dreaming?

First off, I don’t think we have enough research to be able to say you want to be day dreaming precisely 33% of the time or something like that.  But it’s important to appreciate that when one’s mind is wandering, when you’re not in the present moment, that can be also disruptive. If you’re having a conversation and you’re mind wandering, then you can lose the train of the conversation.  More commonly, if you’re reading or attending a lecture and you’re day dreaming, you’re not extracting the information.  If you’re driving, particularly in traffic, that can cause accidents.  There are lots of times where it’s really not opportune to day dream, so part of the trick is to mind wander at the right times.

Research suggests that people who have a greater executive working memory capacity are better at opportunistically mind wandering – mind wandering at times when it’s not going to pose a problem for the other things that they’re doing.  So that’s one clear piece of advice, is to be careful, to selectively mind wander at times when it’s not going to be too problematic.

Another thing is the content of the mind wandering.  If you’re simply repetitively thinking about worries that are troubling you, and not really making any progress on them, just thinking, “Oh my god, this is going to happen, oh my god, this is going to happen” then it is mind wandering of a sort but it’s not likely to be particularly productive unless you actually are able to move the agenda forward.

We find that there seems to be certain kinds of mind wandering that seems to be especially associated with productivity. This is unpublished work that we’re still in the process of writing up.  We find that creative individuals tend to engage in mind wandering about material that they find more meaningful.  They tend to mind wander about more unusual and bizarre things, and they tend to mind wander about questions, or issues that they have identified themselves as having been stumped on.

So they go, “How am I going to fix it?  How am I going to create this solution?”  Then they acknowledge that they don’t really know what the solution is, and they set that up as a topic that their mind will repeatedly return to.

How does the brain do that?  How does the brain do things without you being conscious, so that you’ve got this process going on in the background that you’re not consciously aware of? 

So the answer is we still don’t really understand that fundamental question.  But I can tell you several different lines of research which I think are likely to be part of the answer when we do come up with that answer.

One phenomenon is actually something we’ve known for a long time, but still haven’t really figured out how to use it fully, which is kind of ironic because that’s kind of the phenomenon itself.  It turns out that Bluma Zeigarnik, back in the 1930s in Russia, she looked at people’s memory for problems that they’d been working on.  She found that people actually have a better memory for the unsolved problems than for the solved problems.

You might think that if you solved the problem, it would be like, “Ah, that was a victory” and you’d really remember it, and the unsolved ones you’d put away, “I couldn’t do that” and you’d just forget about it.  But no, to the contrary, we tend to maintain accessibility of those problems, or issues, or questions, that we have yet to solve.  It’s almost like a template which the brain is looking to fill, and it passively is accessible so that if something that comes along that’s relevant to that topic, it will latch on to it.

Another way of thinking about this is that if you create this impasse, if you create this open question, then it’s increased the accessibility of that topic, and so it’s more likely that the mind will return to it when it’s randomly going through the various different issues and concerns that it has on the table.  So that seems to be part of it.  We seem to be hardwired to increase the accessibility of unresolved issues.

The second thing is a network that is known as the Default Network, which is a collection of different areas of the brain that is engaged when the mind is not occupied.  There are two things that seem to especially engage the Default Network.

One is when you don’t have anything very demanding to do.  So if you’re just at rest, the mind naturally ramps up this network.  In addition, if you’re thinking about the self, or self-related ideas, or social situations, that seems to ramp it up.  And it also seems to be involved in creative problem solving.  So it seems that there is this network that the mind naturally gravitates to when not given any other demands, that seems to be critically involved in reviewing self-relevant information, including creative problems that people are working to solve.

I read a book recently by Matthew B. Crawford where he talks about how in our daily lives we see what he calls the “intensification of nervous stimulation”.  Do you think that day dreaming is disappearing because we’re so over-stimulated and so time poor that there’s just less and less and less space for it? Do you think we have a cultural terror of boredom that means that day dreaming is being purged out of our lives?

I worry about that.  I do.  Research suggests that people even today are still day dreaming, or mind wandering quite a lot, so I do think that it still occurs.  But the sort of more unstructured type of day dreaming where you aren’t trying to have an activity, you’re just being comfortable just sitting with your mind…

There’s a Science article by Tim Wilson and others, and there’s been some follow up studies on this, suggesting that people are averse to just sitting with their minds.  I find that troubling, and I do worry that the fact that there’s now always, even when you’re online, there’s always some things to do besides simply day dreaming, may be discouraging people from availing themselves of musing, which can really be quite wonderful.

There’s a paper by Killingsworth and Gilbert which says “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind”.  The evidence does seem to suggest that when people are mind wandering, overall they’re less happy than when they are on task, and this sort of may contribute to why people are averse to doing that.

But, and this maybe the part you’ll resonate with, we have another paper called the ‘Silver lining to a wandering mind’, where we find that if people mind wander about topics that they find especially interesting, they’re actually happier than when they’re on task.  So if you can find, or if you’re the kind of person who naturally gravitates to interesting mind wandering topics, topics that really grab you, then rather than being this aversive, boring situation, actually it can be quite rewarding.

So there are reasons to suspect, given what we know, that on the one hand this current state made up of all these different distractions may prevent people from maintaining a sort of extended period of just musing, but may also encourage flights of thought that may also contribute to creativity.  It’s an open question.

If it had been yourself who had been elected in November, and not the current incumbent, and you had run, instead of a platform of ‘Make America Great Again’, on a platform of ‘Make America Imaginative Again’, if that was your aim, was to really strengthen and boost the nation’s imagination at this time in history, what would you do?  What would be the key policy changes you would introduce?  The key parts of your programme?

That’s a great, great question.  The first thing is to encourage imaginative activities.  To encourage people to find domains in which they enjoy being imaginative and to engage in those domains.  One of the things that’s been found with creativity is that if people are intrinsically motivated, if they are personally excited about the topic, and they’re doing it because they enjoy it, that leads to the greatest creativity.

Joseph Campbell said “find your bliss”, and I think that that’s really the secret to maximising imagination.  When people find the topic that they’re passionate about and then are given the licence and opportunity to play with that topic, that is really a critical formula for encouraging the mind to naturally want to explore that question.  It’s so important, and it sounds like your organisation appreciates this, this idea of empowering people to find what it is that they feel is their calling, and to support them in being imaginative and creative and thinking about their calling.  That really is the critical ingredient.

If you’re taken with a problem, your mind will just naturally mind wander about that question.  It will gravitate to it and play with it in different angles without it even seeming like work.  Much of my day is spent pacing, or just allowing my mind to naturally be captivated by all of the exciting questions that I’ve allowed to fill my day.


  1. Helen La Trobe
    April 7, 2017

    I like this post so much! And it got my mind wandering all the way to work. 🙂 I had always somehow thought that day-dreaming was sort of something we do when really we are trying to do something else, such as a boring piece of work or trying to read a book that doesn’t quite work for us. I spend a lot of time alone, and now (after reading the post) I realise that I spend a lot of time mind wandering…thinking about stuff. I do think that some people worry that others are bored when they see them just sitting quietly, seemingly doing nothing. I’ve heard parents ask their children if they’re bored just because they are not actively doing something, and then suggest things they could do. But actually they could already be very busy, doing some important mind wandering. And I also think that some people bombard their senses constantly with things to fill their minds, like TV or computer games they can get lost in. And i think this means they don’t give themselves the opportunity to mind wander. And so does this make them less of a creative person because of the lack of mind wandering time and the constant mind bombardment, or are they naturally less of a mind wanderer and less imaginative and so like to fill the mind from external sources. Which came first? I really enjoyed the post.

Join the discussion

© Rob Hopkins 2017-2024