After months of intense mathematical exercises, Albert Einstein decided to give himself a break from the work one night and let his imagination wander about the concepts of space and time, say Guenther Knoblich and Michael Oellinger inThe Eureka Momentwritten for Scientific America. In the article, they describe how Albert Einstein finally hit on the core idea underlying his famous theory of relativity: “Various images came to mind prompting him to try a thought experiment: If two bolts of lightning struck the front and back of a moving train at the same time, would an observer standing beside the track and an observer standing on the moving train see the strikes as simultaneous? The answer, in short, was no. The floodgates in Einsteins mind opened, and he laid down an ingenious description of the universe. With his sudden insight, Einstein turned our conceptions of time and space inside out.”
Einstein believed in the power of “˜unclamping’ his prefrontal cortex and allowing his cerebral mind to wander. Also known as daydreaming, it’s something our parents and school teachers told us to “˜stop doing and pay attention.’ Evidently studies now show that they shouldn’t have or at least they should have encouraged us at times to intentionally allow our mind to wonder. Because some of the greatest innovations and discoveries have occurred when people have allowed their mind to wonder. As T.E. Lawrence wrote: “All people dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
In my article: Why the most successful disruptors dream by day I wrote about the power and importance of allowing your mind to wonder. Here’s the thing, we’ve all had sudden, smart insights. These “˜Aha’ moments typically happen when we are daydreaming. Of course, if you are a brain surgeon or air-traffic controller, we do not want you to be a daydreamer, well at least not when you are “˜on the job.’ But there are times when we all benefit from daydreaming.
Neuroscientists now tell us that allowing our minds to wonder can actually form new brain pathways and develop our ability to solve complex problems. There are two types of daydreaming, unintentional and intentional. It’s the intentional version of allowing our mind to wonder that can so powerful. Companies like Google and Apple understand this and it’s why they have foosball tables, and nap stations. These novel work environments, which many other companies try and copy, but then fail to encourage daydreaming, are effective because they are actually designed to allow staff to switch off and allow their minds to wonder.
Now we do a lot of daydreaming. According to the boffins, Brit workers spent on average four weeks a year daydreaming at work. So, if we do so much daydreaming and it can have an impact on productivity ““ both negatively and positively ““ a good question would be: How can we conjure these “˜aha’ moments intentionally so that we maximise the benefits? Here are our tips to daydreaming.
Step One: Immerse yourself in your subject. Einstein cracked his theory of relativity because he’d spend hours deep diving into the current theory and understanding the problem completely. If you half-bake a cake you are going to get half-baked results, so explore by reading and consulting widely. When your brain wonders along new pathways seeking creative insights, you want it to be taking the best and most relevant information with it.
Step Two: Remove distractions: Put your phone down, disconnect from the digital world. We daydream when we get bored, keeping your mind engaged and switched on with what cute cats are doing on YouTube or incoming emails and texts does not allow you to clock off enough to unclamp your prefrontal cortex.
Step Three: Find an activity that actively allows you to zone out. One of my clients is a leading food and life-science company. Their scientist, Ingmar Wester, had been battling for many years with developing a natural product that would lower cholesterol. The complex problem he faced was how to extract in sufficient quantities stanols. Plant stanols, a naturally occurring chemical compound, was already known to have massive benefits in lowering cholesterol but no one have figured out how to commercially extract enough of the stuff. Wester had a ground-breaking idea while taking time out to play football with his daughter. Today, Benecol, the product he developed from his innovative mind wondering idea, is recognised as a globally trusted brand enjoyed by millions of people. So find activities where you allow yourself to “˜zone-out.’ Maybe it’s running, cycling or playing with your children. Perhaps it’s going for a long walk or visiting your mother-in-law. Whatever it is do it often with the intention of allowing your mind to wonder.
Step Four: Meditate. If you are not the active type focused meditation is an excellent way to unclamp your mind and letting ideas that are buried in your subconscious mind to surface into the light of your conscious mind where you can access them intellectually.
Step Five: Focus your thoughts on the future: Imagine you have cracked your challenge, you have arrived at your quest’s destination. What does it look and feel like, how are people responding. Studies indicate that clocking out and thinking of the future has some evolutionary benefit. It helps us get a clear sense of what we want, allowing us to make serious plans to achieve our goals. Researchers also discovered that people who zone out to focus on the future have higher working memories.
Step Six – Let your mind explore intellectual reveries. Often when we are reading a book, for example, we may suddenly be reminded of another novel, or something we once heard as our mind begins to trail off. Now most of the time, because we have been trained to do so at school etc. we interject and cut off this trail. Learn to resist this temptation and instead of cutting it off, allow your mind to pursue literary connection between different works. Zoning out while reading may allow you to make a connection you would otherwise miss.
Step Seven: Take mental vacations. Take holidays where you force yourself to take a complete break. Go somewhere where there is no Wi-Fi or mobile reception. Granted this is becoming more and more difficult to do, so just be brave and leave the laptop and work mobile phone at home. Another way to take a mental vacation is to visit a place that conjures wonderful memories or sensations. Visit a favourite childhood vacation spot, for example. Every year I try to take a day trip to Tintern Abbey, a ruined monastic settlement on the River Wye in Wales. It is an immensely peaceful setting where I enjoy taking photographs and as I do my mind connects with disparate ideas. It is often on my drive home where I have my most inspired ideas. In fact, eight years ago on a trip to Tintern my mind wondered and explored becoming a futurist and public speaker. Now up to that stage becoming a public speaker is something I never would have dared do. But by allowing my mind to wonder and imagine the benefits I convinced myself to experiment with something which today I love doing.
There is no doubt that “daydreaming and downtime can lead to solutions for difficult scientific problems and provide inspiration for creative works. Some of history’s best-known scientific and literary achievements grew out of such mental meandering” says Scientific America Eager to explore more and be inspired by the powers of a wondering mind? Why not read their excellent article: Delivered in a Daydream: 7 Great Achievements That Arose from a Wandering Mind