Elon Musk and Bill Gates are not the first original thinkers to understand that doing nothing is essential if you want to think more creatively. Musk, I am told, takes long solitary showers. Gates, it is reported, spends up to a month at a time alone in a cabin.
Huge breakthroughs in science, technology, and the arts, it seems, have come to people who were in the bath (Archimedes) or on a walk (Tesla.) Even Leonardo da Vinci, who took more than ten years to complete the Mona Lisa, clearly benefited greatly from what some of us might dismiss as procrastination.
It makes sense. When you recall the last time you had a flash of insight, was your brow furrowed in concentration or were you, in fact, busy with something else?
Louis Pasteur, the father of germ theory, wasn’t wrong when he said that ‘chance favors the prepared mind,’ yet we all suffer under the delusion that diligent research and prolonged concentration will generate new and original ideas. It seldom does.
It has been proven that our brain’s capacity for generation increases exponentially when our pre-frontal cortex is relaxed. The latest cranial imaging backs this up, supporting the validity of “Eureka” moments, associated with bursts of high-frequency activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe. These bursts are preceded by a “brain blink” which signifies that the individual has been less aware of the environment around them. Crucially, these patterns are not seen during analytic thinking.
For me, mindless meandering is induced when I’m driving or doing chores. For some people, it’s when they’re running. For others, it’s when they’re working in the garden. Being outdoors in nature seems to help all of our conscious brains switch off, allowing the necessary space for original thought.
So why has this kind of mindless activity which is so important for creative thinking become terrifying to us? In a 2014 study by the University of Virginia, participants were given a choice between doing nothing and electric shock. Despite having stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity