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Although anecdotes that creative thoughts often arise when one is engaged in an unrelated train of thought date back thousands of years, empirical research has not yet investigated this potentially critical source of inspiration. We used an incubation paradigm to assess whether performance on validated creativity problems (the Unusual Uses Task, or UUT) can be facilitated by engaging in either a demanding task or an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering. Compared with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number of explicitly directed thoughts about the UUT. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.
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Psychological Science
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DOI: 10.1177/0956797612446024
2012 23: 1117 originally published online 31 August 2012Psychological Science
Benjamin Baird, Jonathan Smallwood, Michael D. Mrazek, Julia W. Y. Kam, Michael S. Franklin and Jonathan W. Schooler
Inspired by Distraction : Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation
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Anecdotes of individuals solving problems after relinquishing
the effort to solve them date back millennia. Indeed, many
influential scientific thinkers—including Newton, Poincaré,
and Einstein—claim to have had their moments of inspiration
while engaged in thoughts or activities not deliberately aimed
at solving the problem they were trying to solve. A key ques-
tion that arises from such examples is whether engaging in any
type of unrelated cognition increases the frequency of creative
solutions, or whether the thoughts that yield such insights have
specific features.
One common example of thinking that is unrelated to an
overt goal is the internally generated thought that occupies
one’s attention during mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler,
2006). Several lines of research suggest that mind wandering
could be linked to enhanced creativity, particularly for prob-
lems that have been previously encountered. First, individuals
with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (which is known
to be associated with mind wandering; e.g., Shaw & Giambra,
1993) tend to score higher than individuals without ADHD on
laboratory measures of creativity (White & Shah, 2006) and on
questionnaire-based assessments of achievement in creative
areas (e.g., music, visual arts; White & Shah, 2011).
Second, focused deliberation on problems can under mine
creativity, whereas distraction can enhance creativity
(Dijksterhuis & Meurs, 2006). Third, a recent meta-analysis
of the conditions that maximize incubation effects (i.e.,
enhanced creative problem solving following a break) found
that the benefits of incubation intervals are greater when indi-
viduals are occupied by an undemanding task than when they
engage in either a demanding task or no task at all (Sio &
Ormerod, 2009). Given that mind wandering is more frequent in
undemanding tasks than in demanding tasks (e.g., Mason et al.,
2007; Smallwood, Nind, & O’Connor, 2009), this finding sug-
gests that one feature that may characterize successful incuba-
tion intervals could be the opportunity for mind wandering.
Finally, a recent investigation found that when individuals
engaged in REM sleep during an incubation interval, they
showed enhanced integration of unassociated information
in the service of creative problem solving (Cai, Mednick,
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin Baird, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Building
429, Room 102, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106-9660
E-mail: baird@psych.ucsb.edu
Inspired by Distraction: Mind Wandering
Facilitates Creative Incubation
Benjamin Baird
1
, Jonathan Smallwood
2
, Michael D. Mrazek
1
,
Julia W. Y. Kam
3
, Michael S. Franklin
1
, and
Jonathan W. Schooler
1
1
Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of California, Santa Barbara;
2
Department
for Social Neuroscience, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany;
and
3
Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia
Abstract
Although anecdotes that creative thoughts often arise when one is engaged in an unrelated train of thought date back
thousands of years, empirical research has not yet investigated this potentially critical source of inspiration. We used an
incubation paradigm to assess whether performance on validated creativity problems (the Unusual Uses Task, or UUT) can
be facilitated by engaging in either a demanding task or an undemanding task that maximizes mind wandering. Compared
with engaging in a demanding task, rest, or no break, engaging in an undemanding task during an incubation period led
to substantial improvements in performance on previously encountered problems. Critically, the context that improved
performance after the incubation period was associated with higher levels of mind wandering but not with a greater number
of explicitly directed thoughts about the UUT. These data suggest that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind
to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.
Keywords
creativity, consciousness, insight
Received 12/26/11; Revision accepted 3/29/12
Research Report
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1118 Baird et al.
Harrison, Kanady, & Mednick, 2009). Although REM sleep is
very different from mind wandering, the fact that the formation
of associative networks during dreaming can lead to incubation
effects is certainly consistent with the prospect that the loose
associative processes of mind wandering (e.g., Smallwood,
Obonsawin, & Heim, 2003) might have similar effects.
However, caution must be taken in drawing firm conclu-
sions from the results of these studies; to date, no published
study has directly compared the effects of incubation intervals
of systematically varying difficulty within a single experi-
ment, nor has any study directly assessed the occurrence of
mind wandering during incubation. Furthermore, there are at
least two competing interpretations of the beneficial effects of
tasks with a light cognitive load: Easy tasks may simply allow
individuals a greater opportunity to explicitly think about pre-
vious problems, or easy tasks may encourage a global mental
set (e.g., Förster, Friedman, & Liberman, 2004) that might
facilitate creativity independently of any specific benefit of
incubation.
The study reported here used an incubation paradigm to
compare the effects of interpolated tasks that systematically
varied in their levels of attentional demand and thus in their
conduciveness to mind wandering. The tasks were interpo-
lated into the Unusual Uses Task (UUT), a classic and widely
used measure of divergent thinking (Guilford, 1967). The
UUT was selected because it yields particularly consistent and
robust incubation effects (Ellwood, Pallier, Snyder, & Gallate,
2009; Sio & Ormerod, 2009), unlike convergent-thinking
tasks (such as the Remote Associates Task), which have been
more prone to empirical inconsistencies (Vul & Pashler, 2007).
The UUT requires participants to generate as many unusual
uses as possible for a common object, such as a brick, in a set
amount of time. The originality of the responses is taken as an
index of creative thinking (e.g., Milgram & Milgram, 1976;
Torrance, 2008; Wallach & Kogan, 1965).
Following the procedure in Cai et al. (2009), we assessed
participants’ performance on UUT problems that were pre-
sented both before and after the incubation interval (repeated
exposure) and on UUT problems that were presented for the
first time after the incubation interval (new exposure). These
exposure conditions allowed us to distinguish between two
different types of improvements in problem solving: incuba-
tion effects (repeated-exposure condition), which correspond
to enhanced processing of previously encountered informa-
tion, and general increases in creative problem solving (new-
exposure condition), which could correspond to general
improvements in creative thinking or to other general facilita-
tive effects (e.g., arousal or fatigue).
We had four hypotheses for this study. First, we expected
that participants would exhibit more mind wandering in
an interpolated undemanding task than in an interpolated
demanding task, which would replicate previous findings that
attentional demand reduces mind wandering (Smallwood
et al., 2009). Given these anticipated differences in mind wan-
dering, we hypothesized, second, that the creative benefits of
incubation would be greater for participants who engaged in
the undemanding task than for participants who engaged in the
demanding task and, third, that this effect would not be attrib-
utable to a greater number of explicit thoughts about the previ-
ously encountered problems. Finally, we hypothesized that
performance would selectively improve on repeated-exposure
problems (i.e., not on new problems) following the undemand-
ing task, which would indicate that the performance improve-
ments resulted from an incubation process rather than a general
increase in creative problem solving.
Method
Participants
One hundred forty-five participants (35 males, 110 females)
completed the experiment (age range: 19–32 years) as partial
fulfillment of a course requirement. Informed consent was
obtained from all participants, and ethical approval for the
study was obtained from the University of California, Santa
Barbara, institutional review board.
Procedure
Baseline UUT. Participants were randomly assigned to work
on two UUT problems (2 min per problem) in which they were
instructed to list as many unusual uses as possible for each
stimulus. Participants typed their responses on a computer,
directly into a text box that automatically expired after 2 min.
Incubation. After completing the baseline UUT, participants
were assigned to one of four between-subjects conditions, using
a counterbalanced design. In three of these conditions (demand-
ing task, undemanding task, and rest), the baseline UUT was
followed by an incubation period that lasted 12 min. Partici-
pants in the demanding-task condition performed a 1-back
working memory task that places a strong constraint on top-
down attention, whereas those in the undemanding-task condi-
tion performed a choice reaction time task (0-back) requiring
infrequent responses. Studies have shown that tasks without a
working memory load elicit more mind wandering than tasks
with a working memory load (e.g., Smallwood et al., 2009). In
the rest condition, participants were asked to sit quietly during
the incubation interval. Participants in the fourth condition (no
break) did not receive a break from the UUT.
Immediately following the incubation interval in the
demanding-task, undemanding-task, and rest conditions, we
administered a commonly used self-report measure of mind
wandering (e.g., Barron, Riby, Greer, & Smallwood, 2011;
Matthews et al., 1999) in order to confirm differences in mind-
wandering frequency between the two task conditions. (The
questionnaire was administered following the rest interval in
the rest condition in order to maintain consistency across incu-
bation conditions.) This questionnaire asks participants to rate
how often they engaged in different types of task-unrelated
thought, such as considering personal worries or future or past
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Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation 1119
events (rating scale from 1 to 5, with higher scores indicating
higher levels of mind wandering). To assess explicit thoughts
about the creativity task, we had participants in these three
conditions complete a separate questionnaire on the frequency
of their thoughts about the creativity problems during the incu-
bation interval.
Postincubation UUT. After the incubation interval (or fol-
lowing the baseline UUT, in the case of the no-break condi-
tion), participants were informed that they would work on the
UUT again. Four UUT problems (2 min per problem) were
presented in a random order: two repeat problems (repeated-
exposure condition) that were identical to the problems pre-
sented at baseline and two randomly assigned new problems
(new-exposure condition).
Assessing propensity to mind-wander. At the end of the
experiment, all participants completed the Daydreaming Fre-
quency subscale of the Imaginal Process Inventory (IPI),
which assesses individuals’ general propensity to mind-
wander (Singer & Antrobus, 1972).
Tasks
Interpolated tasks. Stimuli for the demanding and unde-
manding tasks were the digits from 1 through 9, which were
presented serially (in quasirandom order) in the center of a
computer screen for 1,000 ms each; each digit was followed
by a 1,500-ms fixation cross. In both of these tasks, nontargets
were black numbers that required no response, and nontargets
occurred frequently, whereas targets were infrequent. In the
undemanding task, targets were colored numbers, and partici-
pants had to determine whether each target stimulus was even
or odd. In the demanding task, targets were colored question
marks, and participants had to determine whether the stimulus
immediately preceding each target was even or odd. Partici-
pants in both conditions received a short practice session with
feedback.
UUT. Following the procedure used by Wallach and Kogan
(1965), we pooled responses to each UUT stimulus across the
sample, and points were assigned for statistically unique
responses.
1
Percentage improvement on the UUT was calcu-
lated separately for each problem type (repeated exposure,
new exposure) and was compared across conditions (unde-
manding task, demanding task, rest, no break). This was calcu-
lated as [(postincubation UUT score – baseline UUT score)/
(baseline UUT score)] × 100 (see Cai et al., 2009, for a similar
analytic method). Percentage improvement was calculated at
the individual level and then averaged for each condition.
Although uniqueness scoring is the most standard method
of scoring divergent-thinking tasks (e.g., Milgram & Milgram,
1976; Torrance, 2008; Wallach & Kogan, 1965), it has been
criticized (Silvia et al., 2008) on the grounds that it may con-
found creativity with fluency (e.g., participants may receive
high creativity scores simply by virtue of generating a large
number of responses). Therefore, to assess fluency, we had
two independent raters blind to condition tabulate the number
of nonredundant responses each participant generated for each
UUT stimulus. The interrater classification of nonredundant
responses was highly reliable (α = .95). For each individual,
the two raters’ scores were averaged to yield a measure of
fluency.
Results
Mind wandering
Participants in the undemanding-task condition reported sig-
nificantly greater mind wandering (M = 2.47, SD = 0.66) in the
retrospective questionnaire than did participants in the
demanding-task condition (M = 2.15, SD = 0.67), F(1, 72) =
4.04, p < .05, η
2
= .05. This result replicates previous findings
that working memory load decreases the frequency of mind
wandering.
2
An analysis of the demanding-task, undemanding-
task, and rest conditions revealed no group differences in par-
ticipants’ retrospective reports about the degree to which they
had been explicitly thinking about the previous creativity task,
F(2, 106) = 0.09, p = .90, η
2
= .002.
Incubation-task performance measures
No significant difference in accuracy was observed between
the undemanding task (M = .87, SD = .10) and the demanding
task (M = .88, SD = .20), F(1, 72) = 0.06, p = .80, η
2
= .001.
Response time to targets was significantly faster in the
demanding task (M = 518.39 ms, SD = 117.55 ms) than in
the undemanding task (M = 648.97 ms, SD = 48.21 ms), F(1,
72) = 38.93, p < .001, η
2
= .35. Faster response times were
expected in the demanding task because responses were based
on the previous (already-encoded) digit, whereas the unde-
manding task required participants to first encode the target
digit and then respond. This difference in response times
reflects the key difference in the structure of the two tasks: The
demanding task required that the identity of nontarget stimuli
be encoded, whereas the undemanding task did not require
that participants attend to nontarget stimuli.
UUT uniqueness scores
We first analyzed the UUT uniqueness scores using a mixed-
model analysis of variance (ANOVA) with exposure condition
(repeated exposure, new exposure) as a repeated measures fac-
tor and incubation condition (undemanding task, demanding
task, rest, no break) as a between-subjects factor. An Exposure
Condition × Incubation Condition interaction emerged, F(1,
141) = 4.98, p < .01, η
2
= .10. To further explore this effect, we
used univariate ANOVAs to analyze incubation-condition dif-
ferences in repeated-exposure and new-exposure UUT unique-
ness scores.
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1120 Baird et al.
Repeated-exposure condition. There was a significant
effect of incubation condition in the repeated-exposure condi-
tion, F(1, 144) = 4.99, p < .01, η
2
= .10. Participants who
engaged in an undemanding task during the incubation inter-
val displayed significantly greater improvement in UUT
uniqueness scores for repeated-exposure problems compared
with participants who engaged in a demanding task (p < .01),
a period of rest (p < .01), or no break (p < .01). No significant
difference in improvement was observed between participants
who received no break and those who engaged in either a
demanding task (p = .35) or a period of rest (p = .30); thus, no
incubation effect was observed in the latter two conditions
(see Fig. 1).
New-exposure condition. No incubation-condition differ-
ences were observed for improvement in uniqueness scores
for new problems, F(1, 144) = 1.01, p = .39, η
2
= .02 (Fig. 2).
No significant difference was observed between participants
who received no break and those who engaged in an unde-
manding task (p = .21), a demanding task (p = .70), or rest
(p = .95). Thus, there was no significant incubation effect in
any incubation condition for the new-exposure problems.
UUT fluency
Fluency scores for the repeated-exposure problems did not dif-
fer significantly between incubation conditions, F(1, 144) =
1.15, p = .39, η
2
= .02. This result rules out the possibility that
between-condition differences in creativity as indexed by
uniqueness scores were a result of confounding fluency and
creativity.
Individual differences in mind wandering and
UUT uniqueness scores
Scores on the Daydreaming Frequency subscale of the IPI
positively correlated with UUT uniqueness scores for both
repeated-exposure problems, r = .22, p < .05, and new-
exposure problems, r = .20, p < .05. This result provides pre-
liminary evidence that individuals who mind-wander more
frequently in their daily lives may be more creative in
general.
Discussion
Although research has suggested that taking a break can facili-
tate creativity, the mechanism of this incubation effect has
remained unclear and has been the source of considerable
empirical research and theoretical debate (e.g., Dijksterhuis &
Meurs, 2006; Smith & Blankenship, 1989; Yaniv & Meyer,
1987). The study reported here demonstrated that taking a
break involving an undemanding task improved performance
on a classic creativity task (the UUT) far more than did taking
a break involving a demanding task, resting, or taking no
break. Notably, this improvement was observed only for
repeated-exposure problems, which demonstrates that it
resulted from an incubation process rather than a general
increase in creative problem solving. Together, these data cor-
roborate, within a single experiment, the conclusion of a recent
meta-analysis (Sio & Ormerod, 2009) showing that incubation
effects were larger in studies in which individuals engaged in
an undemanding interpolated task than in studies that included
a demanding interpolated task or a rest period.
Our data support the notion that specific types of unrelated
thought facilitate creative problem solving. Even though the
act of encoding information in working memory was unrelated
to the solutions of the creativity problems, no incubation effect
was observed in the demanding-task condition. Moreover, the
undemanding-task condition was not associated with increased
frequency of thoughts explicitly about the creativity problems,
but was characterized by high levels of mind wandering. Thus,
our data indicate that creative problem solutions may be facili-
tated specifically by simple external tasks (i.e., tasks not
related to the primary task) that maximize mind wandering.
The observation that performance selectively improved for
repeated-exposure problems (and not for new problems) indi-
cates that engaging in a task conducive to mind wandering
does not lead to general increases in creative problem-solving
ability. However, performance on both repeated-exposure and
–40
–20
0
20
40
60
Undemanding Demanding Rest No Break
Improvement on UUT (%)
Incubation Condition
Fig. 1. Improvement in Unusual Uses Task (UUT) uniqueness scores (post-
in cubation performance relative to baseline performance) for repeated-
exposure problems as a function of incubation condition. Error bars indicate
standard errors of the mean.
–40
–20
0
20
40
60
Undemanding Demanding Rest No Break
Improvement on UUT (%)
Incubation Condition
Fig. 2. Improvement in Unusual Uses Task (UUT) uniqueness scores
(postincubation performance relative to baseline performance) for new-
exposure problems as a function of incubation condition. Error bars indicate
standard errors of the mean.
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Mind Wandering Facilitates Creative Incubation 1121
new problems positively correlated with individuals’ general
propensity to mind-wander in everyday life (as assessed by the
IPI). This observation provides preliminary evidence that
there may be a relationship between individual differences in
mind wandering and creativity. Although this observation is
intriguing, it should be noted that this study lacked assess-
ments for a variety of other individual differences measures
(most notably, measures of inhibition) that could in principle
account for the association between propensity to mind-
wander and performance on the creativity task. An important
direction for future research will be to conduct a more thor-
ough assessment of the relationship between individual differ-
ences in mind wandering and creativity while controlling for
other factors that could contribute to this relationship.
Further research is needed to determine precisely why the
unrelated thoughts that occur during mind wandering uniquely
facilitate incubation. One possibility is that mind wandering
enhances creativity by increasing unconscious associative pro-
cessing, as predicted by the spreading-activation account of
incubation (e.g., Yaniv & Meyer, 1987; see also Dijksterhuis
& Meurs, 2006). A second possibility derives from recent neu-
roimaging work indicating that executive and default networks
interact during mind wandering (Christoff, Gordon, Small-
wood, Smith, & Schooler, 2009). Interactions between these
networks are observed relatively rarely in cognitive neurosci-
ence (although see Baird, Smallwood, & Schooler, 2011;
Gerlach, Spreng, Gilmore, & Schacter, 2011); considering that
activations in both networks are observed prior to successful
solution of insight problems (Kounios et al., 2008; Kounios
et al., 2006), engaging in tasks conducive to mind wandering
could contribute to incubation by creating a situation in which
default and executive systems mutually contribute to associa-
tive processing. Neurocognitive investigations of the brain
activations that occur during successful incubation intervals
might profitably explore this issue.
Anecdotal accounts of the inception of creative ideas have
long implicated mind wandering in the creative process. The
findings reported here provide arguably the most direct evi-
dence to date that conditions that favor mind wandering also
enhance creativity. From a theoretical perspective, this
research also helps to establish at least one benefit from
engaging in this otherwise seemingly dysfunctional mental
state. Although mind wandering may be linked to compro-
mised performance on an external task (Barron et al., 2011;
McVay & Kane, 2009) and may be a signature of unhappiness
(Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010), it may also serve as a founda-
tion for creative inspiration.
Acknowledgments
We thank Steve Fiore for helpful discussion and James Schlegel,
Alex Weis, and Adam Haik for assistance in conducting the research.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with
respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.
Funding
This research was supported by the John Templeton Foundation
under Grant No. 24329, awarded to Jonathan W. Schooler. Benjamin
Baird is supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate
Research Fellowship under Grant No. DGE-0707430. Michael D.
Mrazek and Michael S. Franklin are supported through Office of
Education Grant No. R305H030235, awarded to Jonathan W.
Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood.
Notes
1. Following the procedure used by Wallach and Kogan (1965), we
categorically assigned statistically unique responses a score of 1.
Because problems were repeated in our incubation design, responses
appearing up to two times across the sample received points. An
alternative scoring method using a graded scale (from 1 to 5;
S. Fiore, personal communication, January 25, 2011) yielded nearly
identical results.
2. As noted, we also administered the mind-wandering questionnaire
following the rest interval. The score on the retrospective mind-
wandering scale in the rest condition (M = 2.35, SD = 0.57) was not
significantly different from the score on this scale in either the
undemanding-task condition (p = .44) or the demanding-task condi-
tion (p = .19), although this comparison is difficult to interpret
because the rest condition included no primary task to which internal
thoughts could fail to pertain.
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