Photo by inottawa
Once upon a time, a creativity researcher asked a group of schoolchildren to write her some stories. She encouraged them to write about whatever they liked and let their imaginations run free.
Reading through the stories, she was disappointed. Instead of wild imaginations she found tame thoughts and lame tales.
The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative, as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn’t really know how.
The researcher was Teresa Belton of East Anglia University in the UK. Determined to find the root of the problem, she monitored the children’s daily activities for several months. Jonah Lehrer summarises her findings in an article for Boston.com called Daydream Achiever:
Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of “empty time,” or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. “It was a very automatic reaction,” she says. “Television was what they did when they didn’t know what else to do.”
The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored – at least, when a television was nearby – they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. “The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere,” Belton says. “But that’s a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice.”
Lehrer also cites research by Jonathan Schooler, showing that those who spend more time daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity.
Other researchers have used brain scanners and EEG sensors to monitor neural activity in people engaged in solving problems. They found that the brain was working much harder in those subjects who solved the problems by daydreaming resulting in a flash of insight, than in those who used logical reasoning:
These sudden insights, they found, are the culmination of an intense and complex series of brain states that require more neural resources than methodical reasoning. People who solve problems through insight generate different patterns of brain waves than those who solve problems analytically. “Your brain is really working quite hard before this moment of insight,” says psychologist Mark Wheeler at the University of Pittsburgh. “There is a lot going on behind the scenes.
In fact, our brain may be most actively engaged when our mind is wandering and we’ve actually lost track of our thoughts, a new brain-scanning study suggests. “Solving a problem with insight is fundamentally different from solving a problem analytically,” Dr. Kounios says. “There really are different brain mechanisms involved.”
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.
Robert Lee Hotz, ‘A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight’
So What’s This Got to Do with the iPhone?
Some of you might be feeling a little smug at this point. If you’re anything like me – a new media enthusiast who spends more time in front of a computer screen than a television – the research seems to confirm all our prejudices against the ‘couch potato’ behaviour fostered by TV.
Well stop and think for a moment about the iPhone. Whether or not you’ve actually given in and bought an iPhone yet, don’t tell me you haven’t considered it. Or daydreamed about the wonderful creative possibilities of carrying this digital box of tricks with you wherever you go.
In a sense, it doesn’t really matter whether you buy an iPhone or not. What the iPhone represents is the arrival of portable cloud computing, a world where everyone is ‘always on’, always connected, wherever they go.
A world with no downtime.
Think about the last time you found yourself ‘killing time’ – at an airport, between meetings or on a solitary train journey.
With an iPhone, you’re never bored – just whip it out and you’re instantly entertained. In fact, you’re spoiled for choice: Browse the web? Play with an app? Start Tweeting? Check your e-mail (again)?
Next time you find yourself automatically reaching for your phone to banish boredom, stop and ask yourself: Is this really so different from those schoolkids who can’t do nothing for a moment without switching on the TV?
Without an iPhone, you’re in serious danger of being bored. What can you do? Examine your surroundings? Stare into space? Let your mind wander…?
Do you see what I’m getting at? How many creative discoveries have you made while daydreaming in odd moments? How often has boredom been the mother of your invention?
Could the death of boredom mean the death of your creativity?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.