Month: December 2016

‘Doing nothing’ in order to do something


About a year ago I came across a book entitled ‘Auto-pilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing’ by Andrew Smart. Here is the link:

At the end of the introduction, Smart has this to say:

Allowing the brain to rest opens the system to exploiting … mechanisms of nonlinearity and randomness, and amplifies the brain’s natural tendency to combine percepts and memories into new concepts. Anecdotal evidence from writers and artists, as well as recent psychological studies, leads to the understanding that in order to really tap the creative potential of the brain, a complex nonlinear system, we should allow ourselves long, uninterrupted periods of idleness. At a minimum, it is possible that resting is as important for brain health as is directed mental activity, if not more important. 

Note that all the evidence for such claims appears to be anecdotal, by the author’s admission. And yet, there is an idea worth pursuing here, one that can be applied to the complex business of developing a doctoral research project and producing a written thesis. Both activities seem to be more target-driven than they used to be. There are numerous deadlines and milestones to help us map our way. But what if we are so intent on completing multiple tasks through ‘directed mental activity’ that we fail to see possibilities and opportunities that do not lie in the precise direction that we are taking? What if we don’t have the time to take a step back and clear our thoughts?

It seems that when we are apparently ‘doing nothing’ with the brain at rest, this is a misconception. In fact, there is a lot going on. According to Smart, “the brain is perpetually and spontaneously active. It is maintaining, interpreting, responding and predicting”. Through these activities we can form new connections – ones that would not be apparent when a small part of the brain is engaged in directed activities.We switch off in order to gain new insights, find missing links and generate new questions. That’s probably why Archimedes was in the bath when he unintentionally invented the concept of ‘eureka moments’.

Browsing the internet, I have managed to find a certain level of agreement among eminent psychologists concerning the creative thinking process and how it might be broken down into stages. A summarized version from multiple sources is as follows:

  1. Preparation: formulating the problem or question to be addressed
  2. Incubation: trying to get rid of ideas that might be interfering with the solution
  3. Illumination: this is the ‘eureka moment’ when everything suddenly becomes clear
  4. Verification: testing the solution

What really interests me here is Stage 2. In order to open up the brain to new solutions, the thinker is encouraged not to dwell on the problem but to engage in other activities such as reading or playing games – or ‘doing nothing’.

When we are stuck and feel that we have reached a dead end both in terms of our reasoning and our will to go on, the solution might be to attempt a spring-cleaning exercise. In order to go forward, we may need to de-clutter all of the bits of information and ideas that are currently preventing us from open-minded thinking and achieving a certain distance from the questions that interest us. ‘Doing nothing’ in order to do something and ‘long periods of idleness’ may not be such a bad idea, after all.

If any readers have concrete examples of the benefits of protracted idleness within a research project, I would interested to hear about them.