Did anyone else see the essay in last week’s New York Times magazine about the cognitive benefits of spacing out?
A number of studies have been done about the benefits that meditation brings its practitioners in terms of focus and productivity. But, as the Times explains, “one of the most surprising findings of recent mindfulness studies is that it could have unwanted side effects. Raising roadblocks to the mind’s peregrinations could, after all, prevent the very sort of mental vacations that lead to epiphanies.”
In 2012, Jonathan Schooler, who runs a lab investigating mindfulness and creativity at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study titled “Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation.” In it, he found that having participants spend a brief period of time on an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering improved their subsequent performance on a test of creativity. In a follow-up study, he reported that physicists and writers alike came up with their most insightful ideas while spacing out.
This makes good intuitive sense, at least to the way I think and work, especially when I consider how I approach travel — not with a notebook, but with a directionless, yet still observant mind. Of course, travel is often inspiring in its own right. But then I think about a time during high school, when I was working on a complicated math problem. I tried and tried and couldn’t figure it out, and so I went to bed. The next morning, I looked at the paper again and the answer seemed clear as day.
Unfortunately, “just space out” is not a reliable technique for resolving difficult questions, but it’s also nice to be reminded of the utility of doing nothing in this data-driven age.