Many of my life’s epiphanies happen when I’m busy doing something other than looking for the meaning of life. Showering, cooking, driving, jogging. Things that require a bit of attention but not total focus. In fact, I’ve had so many personal epiphanies while hiking and folding laundry that I’ve become curious about it. Why is a little distraction good for insight?
My best guess is that activity quiets the mind – that conscious, thinking part of the mind that is usually humming like an air conditioner through our every waking moment (I’m talking here about executive function in the prefrontal cortex for you science nerds). For example, if I’m busy chopping carrots, I suspect that my brain hands over more control to the motor control regions of my brain and less to the self-conscious, idea editing part of my brain. While I’m still free to think, it’s likely to be a little less structured, a little more freeform. Like a child on the beach, rambling around in the sand, looking at all the foamy surf, the pretty stones and seashells, the smashed bits of crab. There’s no agenda here, except to keep rambling.
In this way, distracted thinking is a bit like meditation. A regular sitting practice not only enhances one’s powers of concentration, but focusing on the breath for long periods frees other regions of the brain to rest and loosen up. In other words, to get quiet.
A 2012 study from the University of Leiden revealed that meditation can positively affect two key components of creativity: divergent thinking (which generates new ideas, like the kid finding trinkets on the beach) and convergent thinking (which figures out how to use those ideas, like the kid realizing that sea glass might make awesome jewellery). Put these two kinds of thinking together and you end up with novels, lightbulbs, antibiotics, and iPhones.