Frogging

According to an article by Greg Miller in the weekly journal Science, entitled Peering inside the Wandering Mind, daydreaming is the default setting of the human brain. Apparently certain sections of the brain are active when we are working on specific tasks and other areas are active when we are not. At those times when we are not task-oriented, our brains wander in and out of thoughts: we daydream. The studies reported in Miller’s article suggested that this mind-state – the default daydreaming state – is where creative ideas generate. He reports that “activity in the default network is necessary to generate spontaneous thoughts” and “creative insights often happen during these episodes.”

What if we apply these findings to design? Several thoughts occur to me. First, to create, individuals apparently need a fair amount of unstructured time during which they are not trying to accomplish a particular task, including, I suppose, the task of coming up with creative ideas. Perhaps this is the problem with “writer’s block” – concentrating on the task of writing may block the free flow of ideas that occurs in the daydreaming state. Second, perhaps businesses that engage in creative endeavors should give their employees less work to do. A task-free workplace? Quite an oxymoron, but there may be something in it. Finally, workplaces of all kinds should be physically designed to afford some degree of non-task activity to encourage innovation. In today’s global market, even the most traditional firms need to be innovative to stay competitive.

Although I often find myself woolgathering at my desk, it’s usually when I’m bored with my task. Then the task quickly snaps me back and I feel guilty about “wasting” time daydreaming. This “distraction” daydreaming comes in short bursts and doesn’t lead to much insight. On the other hand, my mind free-flows like crazy in my long morning showers where I have no tasks other than to get myself clean and warm, and quite often, by the time I’m toweling off, I have formed two or three solutions to some problem or another. In the shower, I’m in the state of mind my father called “frogging” – sitting like a frog on a log with nothing else to do. The other time I do my best daydreaming is walking about my garden just looking at the plants.

Two situations seem to trigger the daydreaming mind-state. The first is when we are engaged in something repetitive that we don’t have to think about to do – the shower for instance. The second is when we are simply looking at things. When I visited the MOMA in New York last year I spent some 30 minutes sitting in the courtyard looking at the people and the art. The place was crowded – every one of the numerous benches was taken – but the experience was nonetheless quite meditative.

So what would a workplace that encourages “frogging” look like? The answer, it would seem, would be to provide places to engage in mindless tasks and/or places to simply look at things. How about some comfy chairs near a piece of art, a garden with meandering paths, or a coffee bar overlooking a window with a view? How about a nicely furnished gym outfitted with plenty of those daydream-inducing aerobic machines? If employers provided places like these and created a culture where employees were encouraged to use them, my guess is they’d see an increase in creative ideas.

Our brains are marvelous organs. We can concentrate on getting a task done and we can juggle multiple tasks at once. But, as Miller’s article suggests, the daydreaming mind can come up with some of the best ideas. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to relax a little.

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