Daydreaming and Mind-Wandering

More than 50 years ago, pioneering research by Jerome L. Singer and colleagues provided evidence that daydreaming is a widespread and normal aspect of human inner experience (McMillan, Kaufman, & Singer, 2013; Singer, 1966). In the past 10 years, there has been a resurgence of research on the costs and benefits of daydreaming, with the term "mind-wandering" showing a dramatic increase in the frequency of articles using this term (Callard, Smallwood, Golchert, & Margulies, 2013). This renewed interest in mind-wandering is partly caused by the discovery of the default network that we discussed at length earlier.

How are the default network and the self-generated cognitions that arise from it related to creativity? For one, the default network plays a role in imagination by "constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present" (Buckner, Andrews-Hanna, & Schacter, 2008, pp. 18-19). It is for this reason that we are fond of thinking of it as the "imagination" network. Indeed, a recent large-scale review of the literature on the neuroscience of creativity suggested that the default network is a critical contributor to originality (Jung, Mead, Carrasco, & Flores, 2013). In conjunction with executive functions, such as cognitive control, inhibition, and flexibility, mental simulations of the future can be harnessed for practical value. Recent research suggests that the default network interacts with other large-scale brain systems (such as the executive attention network) to maintain an internal train of thought (Andrews-Hanna, Smallwood, & Spreng, 2014; Smallwood, Brown, Baird, & Schooler, 2012).

Second, the default network is related to mind-wandering (e.g., Mason et al., 2007), and this has implications for the generation of creative insights. The "Aha!" experience rarely comes while the mind is focused intensely on solving a problem. Instead, creative insights typically arise unsupervised, when the conscious mind has wandered away from the task at hand, enabling spontaneously generated novel connections. Unlike machine models of mind, the mind is likely in wild chaos much of the time. The mind wanders, is nimble, and is opportunistic, but it can focus—but only for limited periods of time.

In keeping with this, evidence suggests that the ability to generate original ideas, as well as actual creative achievement, is associated with diffuse, unfocused attention to the external environment (e.g., Jung et al., 2013; Martindale, 1981; White & Shah, 2006).

Mind-wandering and aging. Mind-wandering and task-unrelated thoughts have been found to decrease with age, at least under laboratory conditions (Giambra, 1989; Singer & McCraven, 1961; Tamplin, Krawietz, Radvansky, & Copeland, 2013). This finding is consistent with research showing reduced activity in the default mode network as people age (Damoiseaux et al., 2008).

So far we have reviewed five cognitive factors that decline with age and likely contribute to a decline in creativity:

  • 1. Speed
  • 2. Short-term memory
  • 3. Fluid reasoning
  • 4. Originality
  • 5. Mind-wandering

This paints a dismal picture for Bruner, Broadbent, Beck, and the rest of us as we age. However, some cognitive factors are maintained into older age, including long-term retrieval, verbal and academic knowledge, reading abilities, oral expression, and listening comprehension. Because these abilities draw more on knowledge and expertise, we now look at additional knowledge-related factors that likely improve with age and, therefore, might contribute to a compensatory increase in creativity with age.

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