Your best thinking occurs when your mind wanders
Last year’s great book was Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. In it, Goleman shows how keeping your eye on the ball, focusing your undisciplined mind on the tasks at hand, is the key to success in life. Focus enables us to solve problems, to achieve goals.
But this is my encomium to the glory of a mind adrift. Your best thinking occurs when your mind wanders. Cognitive scientists say you have an incorrigibly distracted mind. The wandering mind is our brain’s default mode. Left to their own devices, our brains go to the beach when they’re not working on calculus or Angry Birds.
See? Even now your mind wanders. I’m desperate to stimulate your cerebral cortex in focusing on the wonders of neuroscience, and the lower functions of your brain are dragging you to think about what’s in the refrigerator.
A 2009 neurological study shows that half of your thoughts are daydreams. Even as your mind drifts away from neuroscience, Goleman says, maybe it is wandering toward a consideration of pressing personal problems or unresolved dilemmas. Sometimes we are so intimidated by the magnitude of a problem that we dare not consciously think about it. But then, when we’re half asleep or bored by an op-ed piece, our minds wander toward intimidating mental challenges. And it’s then that we unthinkingly do our best thinking.
True, sometimes mind wandering impairs focus on a task at hand. Yet Goleman says the time a distracted brain spends tackling tough challenges makes up for diminished productivity. Sorry, you math nerds who excel at cognitive control and disciplined attentiveness — you test poorly in creativity. Among the benefits of mind wandering, Goleman lists generating future scenarios, self-reflection, navigating complex social situations and incubating new ideas, to say nothing of giving your brain a rejuvenating vacation.
As G.K. Chesterton said of his deductive detective, Father Brown, “In that instant he lost his head. His head was most valuable when he had lost it. In such moments he put two and two together and made four million.”
The most brilliant research chemist I’ve ever known had a pathologically wandering mind. Each afternoon graduate students helped him hunt for where he had parked — not easy since he couldn’t remember the color or make of his car. The theory in the department was that he made amazing discoveries because his disordered mind, unconstrained by cherished hypotheses, made unexpected connections and stumbled upon serendipitous solutions.
But I digress.
Daydreaming can be the mind’s incubator. When we’re hyperfocused, the possibility of the mind reaching into its reservoir and making an “Aha!” diminishes. In daydreaming there’s no controlling censor to whisper, “That’s ridiculous” or “Completely impractical.”
Here’s good news: 10% of you are ADD, even though half of you are undiagnosed. A 2011 study showed that we adults with attention deficit disorder show higher levels of original creative thinking and more actual creative achievements than you bean counters who are good at attentiveness. Richard Branson, creator of Virgin Air, said the secret of his spectacular entrepreneurial success was that “I’m ADD. I kept being distracted by ideas for making money that nobody else would waste time on.” When asked the source of his comedy, Bill Cosby replied, “I’m ADD.”
Sadly, only 4% carry our ADD into adulthood; we’re doomed to get focused, buy a minivan, go to Harvard and vote Republican.
In 2011 a bunch of brain scientists got a government grant to study the brains of rappers as they freestyled, improvising tunes and lyrics in the moment. The rappers showed unusually heightened activity in the mind-wandering circuitry of the brain, “allowing fresh connections between far-ranging neural networks.” I digress.
The challenges before us present a puzzle. Global warming. National debt. Justin Bieber. Sadly, we focus on short-term, immediate payoffs. The future belongs to those who go beyond facts and think globally and synthetically, make serendipitous associations and devise surprising, novel combinations.
Daydreamers, time wasters, goof-offers, attention-deficited — unite! Throw off the chains of in-the-box, focused, well-disciplined attentiveness! Kick off your shoes. Go skinny-dipping in the fountain. Take a pointless detour to Detroit or Des Moines. Dare your imagination to roam, thereby to come up with the “Aha!” that will enable our civilization to stumble upon a brighter future than can be had merely through clear thinking.
I read a book on the history of scientific discovery (though it has nothing to do with anything I do for a living) and noted not the importance of a good graduate-school education but rather the value of a walk in the woods, an overly long bath, hours wasted in a garden. That playful, legendary daydreamer Einstein said, “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift; the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Both Play-Doh and Silly Putty were discovered by mistake.
It’s the 100th anniversary of the neurasthenic Marcel Proust, who dips a cookie into a cup of tea, lets his mind wander and then writes the world’s greatest novel — 1,000 pages of literary digression.
Willimon is a prolific writer, retired United Methodist bishop and professor at Duke Divinity School in Durham, N.C. This piece is a version of his graduation address at Durham Academy on May 23.