How do you solve creative problems? Do you wander lonely as a cloud until an idea pops into your head like fairy magic or do you have to try real hard until steam comes out of your ears? Neither it would seem.
In 2006, a team of psychologists from the University of Toronto in Canada started looking at how daydreaming (or ‘unconscious thought’) affects creativity and the creative process.
It was their hunch that the answers to creative problems creep up on us when we’re not looking too hard.
They thought that sometimes, the harder people churn away trying to come up with a solution a problem, the less they actually manage it.
They also wanted to prove their idea that whilst daydreaming was important to creativity, people needed to engage in a certain type of daydreaming to get the best results.
They thought that the best and most productive form of daydreaming happened when it was directed towards some type of thorny challenge or problem.
When we idly daydream and mull over ideas about some-thing rather than nothing in particular.
The tests begin
The researchers started by giving people some short creative problems to think about.
They sat around 100 students in front of computers and gave them a series word triads to solve. What word connects ‘round’, ‘manners’ and ‘tennis’? (in case you’re struggling, it’s ‘table’) – that kind of thing.
Then, the group was split into three.
Group one was told they might be tested on the answers later in the day – but, first they’d be moving on to different tests.
Group two was told they would not be tested later on in the day, but that they should take some time now to think very hard about the answers.
Group three were told the tests had ended altogether.
After a break, the researchers asked all the students to write down as many correct answers as they could remember.
The results revealed a big, big difference.
The students who’d been told that their test hadn’t yet finished – and so were given time to mull over and idly contemplate the answers whilst on a break – were far better at recalling the answers.
The students who’d been told either to ‘think very hard’ about the answers before moving on and the students who thought their test had come to an end – and so put it out of their minds – were equally poor at recalling and answering the tests.
So what does all this prove?
Let ideas creep up
The creative process is often thought to be a pretty random one – and that’s true – but it’s one that seems to benefit from operating within certain parameters.
Too much hair pulling and hard thinking about a problem seems to deaden your mind and impede reaching a creative solution.
Too much unfocused daydreaming might mean we simply drift off to la la land and don’t produce anything of value at all.
This research suggests that daydreaming works – but only if it’s unconsciously focused around a particular problem you’re trying to solve.
So, rather than grappling all night with that second chapter perhaps sleep on it, go for a walk, do something unrelated.
Let the problem play around at the back of your head and just maybe, the answer might creep up on you.