Mind Wandering and Creativity: A Review of my Internship

Written by Ash
Over the summer I helped out, as part of an internship, a piece of research regarding mind wandering and it’s links to creativity. Part of the terms of the internship involved presenting the study at a symposium, and the following is adapted from the talk I gave. I’ve recently been invited to submit this to the annual BPS conference for presentation as a poster. I’m quite looking forward to doing it, too — if anyone else is going to be there next year then hit me up.
… The research aimed to discern the creative process. Not discover exactly what it is that makes people creative — there has to be some mystery left in the world — but more find out what it has to share with mind wandering.
Source: http://www.futurity.org/

As psychologists, though, we need to first define exactly what mind wandering is. It’s fine for a lay person to say it’s day dreaming or being in an unfocused state, but as people in the field we really need to be more specific. For example, imagine if we just defined depression as being sad, schizophrenia as hearing things or OCD as being tidy: there’d be something wrong with us all, albeit a pretty fun situation to imagine. So mind wandering, then, is also known in the literature as ‘task-unrelated thought’. Unsurprisingly, it differs from task-related thought in that it’s about the past or future and not a time at hand; thoughts may drift from a single topic, and it usually occurs when not in a demanding task, like driving on a motorway, listening to music or reading a particularly boring article (save comments for the end). Simply put, it’s the experience of thoughts floating around topics.
Perhaps more importantly, though, is the question of why mind wandering is relevant. It occurs at times that inherently cause apathy, and so it’s very easy to overlook it’s importance in cognition. But, a famous poet, Brodsky, once said that ‘boredom is your window’ and Camus, a favourite philosopher, furthers this in saying that ‘the truth is everyone is bored and devotes themselves to cultivating habits’. Quintessentially, when reality isn’t enough for us we daydream. In To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf described a woman ‘losing consciousness of outer things. And as she lost consciousness… her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories, and ideas, like a fountain spring’. Mind wandering is very much this fountain that spills new thoughts into our stream of consciousness. A study by Baird and Schooler demonstrates this: after students were given a boredom inducing task, they were significantly better at creating more uses for objects than students that hadn’t had the same task.
So, in the study we expected to see greater alpha power that is restricted to the right hemisphere. We also expected increased coherence between frontal and parietal sites as these are related to the overactive default network that’s associated with mind wandering. Another thing that was hypothesised, and that’s also pretty cool if you ask me, is a greater amount of eye blinks in creative people as opposed to non-creative people. While this might sound a little bit weird, it makes sense if you look at the literature: eye blinks have been linked to a more active dopaminergic system, and dopamine has been correlated with higher levels of creativity.
The experiment itself looked at musicians, writers, dancers, artists and non-creatives. Admittedly, this isn’t every faucet of creativity though it does cover a pretty broad area of it. We utilised several measures of creativity, mind wandering and mood alongside EEG measures of brain activity. Recruitment criteria was based on either working full time in the given field or by being professionally qualified, the distinction being made because it’s not very easy to make a living in the creative professions.
Procedurally, participants were first asked for demographics and informed consent before being administered the NART and a Bond Lader questionnaire. The NART is an abbreviation for the national adult reading test, and was used as a very crude measure of intelligence; the Bond Lader is a visual analogue scale, a likert scale, used to measure mood. After these have been administered, participants were capped up and EEG recording began, followed by a five minute relaxation period. After this had finished, participants were asked to complete a mind wandering questionnaire as a control measure. Next, participants were given fifteen minutes to plan and create a project; five for planning and ten for bringing it into realisation. I always felt really privileged at this point, being sat there while people created something novel. Following this, participants listened to a happiness tape called the Book of Tea and were administered a final mind wandering questionnaire.
And that was really the focus of the experiment, the rest of the study was much more exploratory. So, the next stage involved a word association task; three linking words were presented, and the participant had to come up with a solution word. For example ‘swiss’, ‘cottage’ and ‘cake’ are obviously linked by the word ‘cheese’ (note: I messed this up during the presentation and said ‘swiss, cottage, cheese’. Just thought you might be interested). The final phase of EEG recording involved a two strings creativity task in which participants are presented with a man stood in the middle of a room attempting to link together two strings. He cannot simultaneously reach both strings, and it it’s the job of the participant to come up with a way to solve the problem.
My favourite solution: Use the jumper and wrench as an Indiana Jones-style lasso.
Participants were then uncapped, given a copy of a well renowned measure of creativity — the Kumar Creativity Questionnaire — a second Bond Lader and were debriefed.
It would be easy to end the talk here, seeing as the experiment is still on-going and results can’t be talked about just yet, but this would miss, potentially, the most important part: what have I learned from the internship? During the course, I’ve had a real, hands on feel for academia and data. I’ve had priceless interactions with participants and I’ve developed a genuine understanding of how to work professionally with others. I’ve also learned that counting eye blinks with an EEG trace is ridiculously hard, and developed a somewhat profound knowledge of 19th century Japanese tea philosophy. Really though, the most important thing I’ve learned, and the thing that will help me with my own dissertation the most, is that things don’t always go according to plan. But, if you stick with them, adapt and learn then things tend to go even better than you thought it would.

About the author


Ash is a PhD student in psychology at Northumbria University whose research focuses towards the general cognitive mechanisms of memory and attention. Most of the time he can be found writing about rubbish, or being rubbish at writing. Personal interests include philosophy, statistics and better understanding how we can convey our knowledge of science to others.

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