My sister ate a carrot this week. That might not sound like much, but because her immune system has been compromised, fresh fruits and vegetables have been deemed too dangerous in recent days—until now. Family and friends celebrated by filling her Facebook spaces with pictures of salads, carrot-crunching rabbits, and cheers. Needless to say, she savored the carrot. She joked about becoming “one with the carrot” in a mindfulness moment. She will have a glorious vegan Thanksgiving.
But as I’ve celebrated the carrot, and my sister’s most mindful eating, it made me think about a recent article linking mindfulness, mind wandering, and creativity. Sometimes mindfulness—careful awareness of our thoughts and actions moment-to-moment–and mind wandering have been seen as opposite ends of a continuum. After all, either our minds are focused, or they are wandering, right? Yet both can be associated with creativity. Letting our minds wander freely can provide room for the imagination, yet focus is important, too—both for problem solving and to help us to be open to the fullness of the experiences around us. So, which leads to more creativity?
This is the puzzle that was investigated in a recent study.* The answer (so far) is the same as that to so many important questions about human beings: It depends. The authors make an important distinction between deliberate and spontaneous mind wandering—that is, is your mind wandering because you’ve purposely decided to reflect and consider many possibilities, or because you are distracted or bored or just not paying attention? It makes a difference. Deliberate—but not spontaneous–mind wandering was linked to more creative activities. And deliberate mind wandering plus mindfulness came together to be the best predictor of originality. The answer to “Which do we need?” is “Both.”
Of course, much is left to learn. But in the meantime, it seems young people will be best served if we help them learn both mindful focus and purposeful mind wandering—and how to figure out which one they need in a given moment. So much of creativity seems yin and yang, flexibility and focus–even focused and more flexible brain networks operating simultaneously. Thinking about teaching young people to focus is familiar territory for most teachers, while teaching about purposeful mind wandering is less so. But “paying attention” as it plays out in school is a far cry from genuine mindfulness, so it seems both parts of the equation need our attention. It all seems important territory for teacherly minds to wander. I need to give that more thought.
In the meantime, in this season of Thanksgiving, let’s be mindful of the gift it is to eat our vegetables, and also find some times to let our minds wander a bit. It may be a winning combination.
*Agnoli, S. Vanucci, M., Pelagatti, C. & Corazza, G. E. (2018) Exploring the link between mind wandering, mindfulness, and creativity: A multidimensional approach. Creativity Research Journal, 30 (1), 41-53, DOI: 10.1080/10400419.2018.1411423