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Letting your mind wander could help spark creative ideas

Have you ever struggled over a seemingly unsolvable problem at work or racked your brain for an innovative idea for your next art project or novel? If you have encountered any of these struggles in your daily life, then you may also have noticed that the harder you try to find the solution to the problem or summon creative inspiration, the more unreachable they both become. The answer, it appears, may lie in taking a “break” from the problem and doing something completely different.

The University of California, Santa Barbara recently conducted some research on this very subject by recruiting and then surveying a number of theoretical physicists and professional writers on their most creative ideas and what they were doing when they came up with the idea. In the surveys, participants described getting about 20% of their most important ideas while their minds were wandering, i.e. they were doing (or thinking about) something other than working. Moreover, participants were in general more likely to see these spontaneous ideas as “aha” moments than the ideas they came up with while working directly on the problem.

This research offers us a glimpse at how creative thinking might work and that it isn’t always when we are thinking hard about a problem or brainstorming (although both methods are quite useful) that we conceive the best ideas. When we are creatively stuck, it may help to remove ourselves from the situation and see if taking a break and doing something different helps spark a new idea or proffers a fresh way of looking at the problem.


“The meandering path to that ‘aha!’ moment” (2019). Retrieved from

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