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Why You Shouldn’t Focus Too Much

Humans are a distractible bunch. We’re easily seduced by ads and offers, memes and tweets. When we’re not focused on useless gimmicks and irrelevant social chatter our minds drift into the clouds. According to a recent study, people let their mind wander about forty-seven percent of the time they are awake. The Internet, where we’re bombarded with hyperlinks, might be to blame. In fact, while writing this post I’ll check Facebook and maybe watch cat videos on YouTube. If I could only focus better…

So says culture. We’re obsessed with relentless focus. We assume that if we encounter a difficult problem the best strategy is to chug red bull or drink coffee. Drugs including Adderall and Ritalin are prescribed to millions to improve focus. Taking a break is a faux pas, mind wandering even worse.

Yet, recent studies paint a different picture: distractions and mind wandering might be a key part in the creative process. Consider a forthcoming paper by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler to appear in Psychological Science. The scientists gathered forty-five undergraduate students and gave them an Alternative Uses Task, in which they had two minutes to list as many possible uses for common everyday objects. The students then took a twelve-minute break after being randomly divided into three conditions: sitting in a quiet room, performing a difficult short-term memory test, or partaking in a boring task intended to elicit mind wandering. Next, the undergrads returned to more creativity tests, including Alternative Uses Tasks they worked on previously.

How did the break affect the students’ creativity? Which groups came up with more possible uses? Jonah Lehrer reports:

Those students assigned to the boring task performed far better when asked to come up with additional uses for everyday items to which they had already been exposed. Given new items, all the groups did the same. Given repeated items, the daydreamers came up with forty-one percent more possibilities than students in the other conditions.

What does this mean? Schooler argues that it’s clear evidence that those twelve minutes of daydreaming allowed the subjects to invent additional possibilities, as their unconscious minds pondered new ways to make use of [common everyday objects].This is why the effect was limited to those items that the subjects had previously been asked about—the question needed to marinate in the mind, “incubating” in those subterranean parts of the brain we can barely control.

This brings me to a brand new study published in the Creativity Research Journal by a team of researchers from Sydney, Australia, led by Jason Gallate.

For the experiment, Gallate and his team gathered eighty first-year psychology students and, like Schooler and Baird, asked them to perform an Alternative Uses Task (in this case the students had to list as many uses for a piece of paper). The students had two minutes to complete the task. Once they finished, they had five minutes to solve 40 “conceptually simple but taxing arithmetic problems” as quickly and as accurately as possible. The purpose of this distractor task was to simulate an “incubation period,” or to test if their unconscious minds would generate more and novel solutions. Next, the students returned to Alternative Uses Task for two more minutes. In an added twist – and this key feature distinguished Gallate’s study from Schooler’s – participants were randomly allocated into two groups: the aware group was told that they would return to the Alternative Uses Task following the arithmetic task whereas the unaware group was not. Did this make a difference? And how much did the distractor task spur the student’s creativity?

The first thing Gallate et al found was that the distractor task did indeed improve performance on the Alternative Uses Task. This finding, according to Gallate, supports the “incubation effect,” or the idea that more and novel solutions are generated by the unconscious mind after the conscious mind has had a break. The English psychologist and sociologist Graham Wallas first outlined incubation periods as part of a larger theory of creativity nearly one hundred years ago. Famous anecdotal evidence throughout history from Archimedes to Arthur Fry suggests that incubation effects are universal and real. And according to Gallate, they are now being verified empirically: “Of the approximately 50 studies that focus on incubation effects, more than 75% have shown evidence of solutions occurring in at least one of the experimental conditions.”

The question is what causes incubation effects. Some deny incubation effects pointing to functional fixedness, which states that when we focus on a problem we tend to inhibit access to successful solutions. Another theory is known as neural fatigue, or the idea that the brain is exhaustible and during problem solving it runs out of energy; a break, therefore, replenishes its resources.

This returns us to Gallate’s twist. The purpose behind the aware and unaware groupswas to see if incubation effects can be attributed to nonconscious process. Gallate hypothesized that, “participants in the aware condition [would] have higher postbreak creativity scores than those in the unaware condition, as a result of differential activation of nonconscious processing.”

This is precisely what he found:

Participants in the aware condition produced significantly higher postbreak creativity scores than those in the unaware condition… Both aware and unaware participants performed identical tasks, so should have performed equivalently if recovery from specific neural fatigue was the cause of the incubation effect. That performance was better in the aware group supports nonconscious processing as a better explanation. Although the aware group was not consciously working on the problem, it is argued that their knowledge that they would return to the task activated nonconscious incubation of further solutions.

In addition, Gallate found that this effect was pronounced with people who scored higher on an initial test of creativity. This, he argues, helps explain why prodigiously creative people have a knack for spontaneously generating solutions to complex problems. This spontaneity is not the result of an innate talent or a gift from the muses, Gallate says, “but actually the result of the prodigiously creative person working on outstanding problems consistently at a level below consciousness awareness.”

Yet, when I’m stuck on an idea or experiencing a bout of writers block I immediately reach for my coffee mug and try to get in the “zone.” Why? Those Red Bull commercials might be to blame; or maybe it’s our deadline driven society in general. Whatever the reasons, the research outlined here suggests that daydreaming and distractions might contribute to the creative process by giving our unconscious minds a chance to mull over and “incubate” the problems our conscious mind can’t seem to crack.

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I’m tempted to use these conclusions to rationalize my meme addiction, but let’s remember that daydreams and distractions per se never helped anyone – there’s a fine line between taking a break and being lazy (or maybe not). The more reasonable conclusion is that when you’re stuck don’t fear distraction and despite what your boss might think, let the mind wander. This, it turns out, is something creative people do really well. Thoreau might summarize it best: “We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success.”

• A special thank you to Jason for letting me interview him and pick his brain about his research. Thanks Jason!



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