Discover more from 3am Thoughts
In a distracted, attention-hijacking economy, mind-wandering is a precious commodity.
The history of human creativity and important breakthroughs, in both the sciences and arts, reveals a consistent theme: that many of these occurred when the originator was not consciously focused on the task. Rather, the "Eureka!" moments happened when their mind was not in an analytical, logical mode of thought, but in daydreaming mode. James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, is said to have imagined the double-helix structure of DNA in a dream about intertwined spiral staircases. Mary Shelley dreamt of what became Frankenstein on holiday with Lordy Byron in Europe. Newton was sitting under a tree when the apple dropped. Richard Feynman was famous for jolts of inspiration while in a restaurant, doodling out ideas onto napkins.
Modern neuroscience is able to provide some insights into why this apparent pattern of thought occurs. As neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin illustrates in his excellent book, The Organised Mind, it turns out that mind-wandering mode or daydream mode is the natural state for the brain to operate in, so much so that it has been termed default mode. This is the engine of the brain idling, the state when you're in the aisle seat of a plane looking out the window at takeoff, merging loosely connected thoughts of past, present, and future. This is the mode of the creative mind.
The diametrically opposed mode of thought to our default mode, is central executive mode. This matter-of-fact, focused attention mode is the Yin to the default mode's Yang, and is much more cognitively demanding. Central executive mode is more resource intensive, because keeping a task in the forefront of focused attention is challenging and requires effort. These two main modes of cognition, central executive and default mode, are not operating at the same time: to spend time in central executive mode requires suppressing default mode, to maintain singular focus on the task at hand. However, because attention has a cost, the brain will kick back to idling if a task is not sufficiently stimulating, or if distractions occur.
Moving between these two states provides the opportunity for insights and connections, that moment in the shower when something clicks that wasn't quite apparent within the confines of analytic, executive mode. Levitin highlighted the story of John Lennon writing Nowhere Man; Lennon had spent hours focused on writing the music, and nothing was coming to him. He gave up, walked away from the task, and soon found himself just laying out the whole song, words and music.
I've come to not only appreciate the role of mind-wandering mode, but to crave it. Like opening a gate for a playful mind to let loose in an expanse of thought with no immediate horizons. And I crave it because I've recently realised how much I was avoiding it.
I say this all coming from a number of perspectives. I fall into a personality type characterised by a need for output, an underachievement complex and self-critical internal monologue. So when Tim Ferriss et al. gave birth to the Cult of Productivity, I was plucked and ready for the pot. There is a whole genre of books dedicated to this, the broad category of "productivity" books, promising to give you the tools and 'hacks' you need to crush it. I've read them all. With the exception of Cal Newports' work, it is a vapid and banal genre of self-congratulatory and indulgent anecdotes from self-diagnosed "type-A personalities" who are really saying that if you could just be like them, you can earn 7-figures from passive income, all from a beach of your choosing. Yawn.
I began meditating seriously in 2011 and, hardwired with the tunnel-vision of obsession and compulsion, would berate myself for not embodying presence for every single waking minute of my day. I began to frame this mind state as my nemesis, daydreaming or being lost in thought as the enemy of presence. My inner bodhisattva needed to go to war with my meandering mind. But as my practice developed, I came to understand that these were not mutually exclusive: meditation cultivates freedom from mindlessness, but the idle mind wandering I craved was deliberate, and with intent.
And then came 2020. Last year, we all experienced something we may not experience again: our exclusion from society, from each other, and confinement to our homes. And while I certainly had periods of explosive productivity, read a lot, and ticked many a box off a to-do list, there was something missing. Maybe you felt this, too. Cut off from a normally functioning society, our lives migrated online even more than they had before. Wanting to stay up to date with a world being upended, the time spent on social media, on digital media, and on Netflix, filled all the space in between another ticked off 'to-do'. All that time for idle thought was lost in a haze of checklists and unmemorable series.
Much of the conversation about the digital age and distractibility emphasises the cost to our ability to be in executive mode: to be analytic, attention, focused, and logical. And this is certainly a cost worth paying attention to. But precious few words are spared for the cost to our default mode, the playfulness and expanse of mind-wandering, idling in a stream of consciousness, happy for the current to pull us along.
Not only do we currently exist in a digital, attention-sapping economy, as Levitin has highlighted, we have evolved a culture that prizes the executive, analytical, diagnostic mode of cognition over the relaxed, playful, intuitive, mind-wandering mode. Indeed, we have conflated distraction with default mode, failing to distinguish between the attention-hijacking distractions of mindless consumption, with the attention-fulfilling subconscious of creativity which mind-wandering mode facilitates.
I had come to think that the threat to attention posed by the distraction economy was to concentration and focus. I now see an equal threat from distraction away from idleness. The solitude of idle thought, the expanse of potential connections and insights only available when analytic barriers are dropped, and thoughts are free to flow unimpeded, with nothing to do and nowhere to be.
In a distracted world, I'm rediscovering respite in the wandering mind, and the joy of idle thoughts.