I get up around 5 am. I make coffee, then check for the newspapers. During these moments, I’m adrift in undirected thinking—the routine of my day. These activities do not spur my imagination, my mind wanders as I spoon coffee. (Years ago I was admonished for cutting grapefruit the wrong way. Sometimes, I think about that as I cut my grapefruit.)
Today, (a spring morning in late April) I stepped onto my porch to a cacophony of sparrows bickering back and forth in an unknown sparrow feud. What do sparrows fight about? How could they be so upset so early in the morning? You could call this observational thinking: pondering unexpected events. A sparrow spat.
Now, I have my coffee and I settle in to write: task thinking. My thoughts are directed to answering the question: what should I write now. (You can see I have no idea what to write, so I have called on the sparrows to invade my mind.)
Since I started writing this piece, I have been engaged in meta-cognition—thinking about how I think. (My great-grandmother’s name was Meta Carpenter. Her every thought was Meta cognition.)
Meta-cognition is essential to improving your imagination and ideation. Learning where your mind goes on its own gives you the power to direct your thinking. Challenge yourself the next time you make coffee or fry eggs or make the bed—what comes into your mind as you perform routine tasks? Most of the time, I realize that I don’t know what I was thinking about.
We spend most of our time in undirected thinking—mind wandering. Which is good. You could exhaust yourself by striving for constant productive thinking. Doctors in the 19th century gave a diagnosis of “brain fever” to those who had worried their brains into exhaustion.
The average brain weighs around 3 pounds. Though only 2% of body weight, the brain consumes as much as 25% of the oxygen, 25% of the nutrients and 70% of the glucose that the body takes in. The brain is high maintenance, high-end equipment. Shouldn’t we optimize production by increasing usage volume?
Many try. French composer Jacques Offenbach became so impatient riding to the opera house that he installed a writing desk in his carriage, so he could continue composing while riding through the streets of Paris.
The 19th century Danish theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, during a prolific period of writing, dressed for the theater every evening. He milled about lobby socially for ten minutes—“not one minute more”—knowing that the gossipmongers would say, “He’s at the theater every single evening, he doesn’t do anything else.” As the curtain rose, Kierkegaard was back home standing at his writing desk, writing until he returned for intermission. He worked constantly, but secretly. He wanted everyone to believe he was nothing but a normal man. Kierkegaard was proud of how inventive his deceptions were.
Kierkegaard hid his diligent work ethic. Now, we mask our indolence. We live in an era of the voluntary ten-hour day, 50-hour week even if it is stuffed with video game hours on the office computer screen.
I feel guilty for indulging in undirected thinking—letting my mind tumble and drift with the wind. According to a 2010 study, mind wandering consumes 50% of our waking hours, which seems low. Even the phrase “mind wandering” seems too casual. Neuroscientists refer to it as SIT: Stimulus Independent Thinking, arguing that SIT or off-task thinking occurs as ancillary Executive Control thinking. Mind wandering might conjure goofing off more than executive control. But, in theory, our minds are lured away from the primary task to solve other problems—often current personal problems.
Don’t wander off here because like much of neuroscience there are contradictions to track down.
Most of the time, we are not aware of our mind wandering, especially if the primary task is not absorbing our full attention. In theory, we have unused mental resources that the brain transfers to thinking about your ex-boyfriend or what to say to your sister.
And, then, there is mind wandering that wanders goal-free off the goal-laden ranch. This is the mind that gazes at clouds and sees the outline of a rabbit or a distant city. (The Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, believed that clouds were the mirror images of cities across the ocean.)
Is there a purpose to mind wandering? Science wants to know. And, so do I. Perhaps mind wandering provides a mental rejuvenation like sleep. Perhaps it is problem solving—a sorting and filing of information in search of a solution. Perhaps it is a form of mental stretching pre-and post-exercise?
If we find our mind wandering even 50% of the time, doesn’t that imply an evolutionary purpose?
Or, maybe we let our minds wander for the simple reason that we can. We are drawn to novelty. We are naturally curious.
Carlo Rovelli, the Italian author and physicist, wrote of Einstein that “you don’t get anywhere by not wasting time.”
Is it mind wandering that allows for both the serendipitous and the irrelevant to pop into mind? Like sparrow spats and grapefruit incisions.
We don’t notice when the mind wanders off. Is that helpful ignorance, or should we be tracking where we go off the rails? Or, should we be yanking up the rails for a free ride through the fields?
Mind wandering alone will not help you achieve your goals. It will not generate ideas on its own. Ideas can emerge from the subconscious or in moments of reverie, but they are not isolated. They are the fruition of earlier directed thought, emerging as by-products of mental incubation.
What do you learn when you think about how and what you think? Do you have ideas in the morning? Do ideas occur in the shower or on a long drive? (Ideas frequently occur when we are engaged in tasks that do not demand full conscious attention. It’s as if the guardians of the brain are rubbing shampoo into your hair and, while they are temporarily distracted, ideas bust through the sub-conscious barrier into your conscious mind.)
And now, it occurs to me that I still don’t remember the way to cut grapefruit. And, I still don’t know what got into the sparrows this morning. They’re calm now. I guess our minds wandered off somewhere.