Recently there has been some research coming out that seems to indicate it is our unconscious mind that creates creative solutions or discovers good ideas, rather than the deliberate process of conscious thinking. For example, researchers at UC-Santa Barbara found that mind wandering was a mental mode that could help students identify creative uses for everyday objects such as toothpicks and bricks. Research subjects that were allowed a rest break of twelve minutes performed about 41% better on assigned tasks. It was thought the rest period when students allowed their minds to wander contributed to this greater performance.

It is our unconscious mind that creates creative solutions or discovers good ideas

Psychologist Sara Mednick, from the University of California, Riverside said, “We’ve traditionally found that rapid-eye-movement sleep grants creative insight. That allowing the mind to wander does the same is absolutely fascinating. I think they are on to something really interesting here.” (Source: Nature) One of the lead researchers pointed out that mind wandering on its own wasn’t helpful; it needs to be preceded by mental activity like trying to solve problems or come up with creative solutions.

Mind Wandering

The unconscious mind today is talked about less as a domain of repressed memories and fantasies, and more in the way of a very fast processing of a great deal of information such as sensory input. For example, our minds may be matching our moment to moment experience to categories we are already familiar with, even though we aren’t aware the matching is taking place. Monty Python co-founder John Cleese attempted to describe part of his creative process as letting ideas bake, “The only thing I could think was that my unconscious had been working on the sketch and improving it ever since I wrote it. I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.” (Source: Life Hacker) He was sharing an insight about a collaboration between himself and Graham Chapman, another key Pythonite, when he lost some material he had written, but found that the rewrite was better than the original. Other research has at least suggested that mind wandering may allow different parts of the mind to collaborate better, “The observed parallel recruitment of executive and default network regions—two brain systems that so far have been assumed to work in opposition—suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that may allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.” (Source: Wired)

Our minds may be matching our moment to moment experience

Jonathon Schooler from the University of California Santa Barbara explained, “Mind wandering seems to be very useful for planning and creative thought. It seems that allowing people an incubation period in which to let their minds wander, really helps the creative process.” (Source: CNN)

Of course, we all experience mind wandering and have observed it can waste time that we could have been using to get daily tasks done. So is there conflict between the conscious attention we must pay to do laundry, prepare food and do work and the mind wandering that helps us be creative?

Not necessarily, if we practice being aware of what our minds are doing and this practice is free. It simply is a matter of choosing to observe our own minds activities and contents. In fact, another researcher is studying how meditation might help us flip back and forth between the conscious and unconscious mental modes more fruitfully, “Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley’s lab at UCSF is just starting a new project to learn ways to help you control the process of deep thought — and Gazzaley says a lot of it has to do with adapting traditional Eastern teachings about meditation. Gazzaley believes that meditation gives you more control over processes such as daydreaming, and this is key to having a fruitful outcome.” (Source:

It simply is a matter of choosing to observe our own minds activities and contents.

One way to encourage mind wandering is to do an undemanding task, such as taking a shower where you have to pay some attention to what you are doing, but not that much. Another might be taking a walk or going for a run in familiar territory. Watching television probably wouldn’t work because it may be too attention capturing and only serve as distraction. Researcher Jonah Lehrer said, “Why is a relaxed state of mind so important for creative insights? When our minds are at ease–when those alpha waves are rippling through the brain–we’re more likely to direct the spotlight of attention inward, toward that stream of remote associations emanating from the right hemisphere. In contrast, when we are diligently focused, our attention tends to be directed outward, toward the details of the problems we’re trying to solve.” (Source: Buffer)

Encourage Mind Wandering and Go for a Run


Another important source of ideas is collaborating with others. C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien were part of an informal group of writers and literary enthusiasts that met regularly at a pub near at the University of Oxford. These gatherings and social interactions played some role in the development of Lewis and Tolkien as writers of myth-based and fantasy literature.

Lewis was known to have remarked, “What I owe them all is incalculable.” (Source: C.S. Lewis) This dedicated band met every week for nearly twenty years.

Taking care of your health and minding your own happiness is important too. Without adequate sleep, our brains aren’t as creative and when we are happier they function better.

Another important source of ideas is collaborating with others.

Harvard-trained psychologist and author Shawn Achor, “Research shows that when people work with a positive mind-set, performance on nearly every level—productivity, creativity, engagement—improves. Yet happiness is perhaps the most misunderstood driver of performance. For one, most people believe that success precedes happiness. “Once I get a promotion, I’ll be happy,” they think. Or, “Once I hit my sales target, I’ll feel great.” But because success is a moving target—as soon as you hit your target, you raise it again—the happiness that results from success is fleeting. In fact, it works the other way around: People who cultivate a positive mind-set perform better in the face of challenge.” (Source: Harvard Business Review)

Document Your Ideas to Have More

Giving yourself permission to have ideas, and to set aside some time and space to document and reflect upon them can help generate even more. As Group Genius author Keith Sawyer said, “Successful innovators keep having ideas. They know that most of their ideas won’t work out, and they’re quick to cut their losses and pursue those few good ideas that resonate with their collaborators. If Morse had stuck with his sculpture machine, or Darwin with his gemmules, today few would remember them. But they used these bad ideas to spark new ideas that would change the world.” (Source: Keith Sawyer, Group Genius, p.107 Basic Books; 2008)

Successful innovators keep having ideas.

The key insight is very simple: allow your ideas to flow without any criticism and document them all. Don’t block them with judgements about ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when they are arriving. After you have collected them, then you can go back and review them and make those kinds of evaluations and try to understand why some are better than others. In fact, the noted psychologist and popularizer of the term flow, has said that having as many ideas as possible can enhance our creative energy and even our happiness.

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