The Power of Zoning Out – Your Brain on Groove and Flow

SkyeTeam Leadership Development

Ever have those flashes of brilliance when you’re in the middle of the grocery store? How about rushing to find a notebook as soon as you pull in the driveway after driving the same commute you have driven, every day, for the past five years? We’ve all heard of the notion that some of our best ideas sometimes come in the shower.

But Mindfulness Is All The Rage…

Mindfulness is a popular construct right now. Businesses are launching programs left, right, and center. Whether it comes from a place you might not expect – like an insurance company, or from a more traditional candidate like Google – there are mindfulness programs gaining traction and proving results right now. So if mindfulness works, and people are jumping on that bandwagon, why on Earth would I suggest that letting our minds wander would be a good idea?

Creativity

It’s not just for artists and musicians anymore. All human brains possess the capacity for creativity. As business leaders, we should embrace this. We are always looking for the next biggest or best idea, and the notion that it will only come from those few bright souls in Marketing or Product is as outdated as the attitudes and mores of the dudes on Mad Men. Alice Flaherty, a Harvard neurologist, has defined a creative as,

“…one that is both novel and useful (or influential) in a particular social setting.”

If we all have the capacity for creativity, how do our brains do it?

Networks & Structure

Our frontal and temporal lobes form networks that work together to generate ideas. These higher order connections also regulate the quality of these ideas. There was a fascinating study done by researchers for the National Institutes of Health using Functional MRIs to identify brain activity during an (overtly) creative process: freestyle rap (*caution, explicit rapping). As Rapper, DNA says, “Freestyling is all in the mind, you can’t try to freestyle, you just gotta do it.”

What they found in this study, was just that, in order to get into these flow states, where the highest quality raps are busted on the mic, these folks had to de-prioritize some neocortical activity; in other words, they just had to ‘do it.’

What does that mean? It means that when we’re being creative, the areas in our brains that make decisions and that are responsible for planning and organization, are largely silent. The areas of our brains that deal with context and emotion are very active. What’s amazing about this, is that via fMRI, we can actually see it happening.

Showers and Ideas

Just like those rap battle flow states, we find ourselves in situations where we can flow every day. Usually they involve some rote tasks that don’t require a great deal of participation from our high order brain function, like the shower. In the shower we feel warm, safe, and are participating in a routine that doesn’t require much from our higher order brain function. When all of those things happen, we might get a lift from the dopest (yes, I’m rapping this blog post in my head right now) neurotransmitter out there, dopamine. Shower time also happens when we are typically tired – in the morning or at night. There is research out there that suggests being tired (and not able to ‘get in our heads’) is actually peak creative time – more on that later.

There is a substantial amount of research in this space. In a study by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler at the University of California at Santa Barbara, they found that allowing the mind to wander may actually facilitate creative problem solving.

At the University of British Columbia, Kalina Christoff has done some amazing research in her cognitive neuroscience lab. Christoff categorizes the two networks in our brains, the default and the executive. The default network is used for easy tasks, and the executive network is used for complex problem solving. What she has found is that when we allow our minds to wander, both of these networks are activated; this was previously not believed possible.

Another interesting notion from all of this research is that when we tell ourselves that we are going to let our minds wander – it doesn’t work as well. Hence, creative peaks being when the neocortical mind isn’t the most alert (the morning shower), or when we are just grooving. Just like our rap battle guys said – you can’t tell yourself that you’re going to freestyle, you just have to flow. In watching that rap battle, I can’t help but think that Voss got ‘into his own head,’ he was choppy and he relied on too many transition words, and really didn’t tell a story. DNA, however, weaved a tale and used all of his challenge words in that narrative…twice. He was flowing.

How can we, as leaders, use this knowledge to our advantage? Many workplace cultures do not place a value on thinking time. In many offices, especially in America, daydreaming is frowned upon. As managers, we can do two things to change this paradigm. Firstly, we can live it. We can role-model this behavior and make it safe in our teams. If we can actually practice it, rewarding it becomes a whole lot easier.

Most people know that the Post-It note was a failed attempt by Dr. Spencer Silverat 3M to create a superstrong adhesive. Silver was trying to market this not-so-superstrong adhesive within 3M, when Arthur Fry attended one of Silver’s seminars. While daydreaming during choir practice, he hit upon the idea that changed many lives forever.

Many historically big thinkers were mind wanderers – Twain, Loyd-Wright, Edison, Einstein, Branson, and even the Post-It Note guy; that’s not a bad club to be in, if you ask me.

“Not all those who wander are lost.” ~Tolkien