Creativity and Distraction
December 21, 2016 4:32 PM   Subscribe

I'm fascinated by this episode of Brain Craft arguing that it's distraction, not deep focus, that boosts creativity. Besides riding public transportation or playing improvisational jazz, I'm curious what suggestions folks here may have for other 'distracted' or 'spontaneous' activities that could create an ideal breeding ground for creative brainstorming.

To summarize the video (which is only 3:17 long and worth a quick watch): Vanessa Hill argues that slightly reducing activity in the brain's 'executive attention network' can boost creative thinking because it frees up the brain to engage in more spontaneity and imagination. She cites a few famous thinkers who found that it was when they were in motion (pacing back and forth, riding in a carriage or train) that they did their best thinking.

She also points out how this distracted but creative thinking often comes naturally for those with ADHD.

I have ADHD, and since I was a child I have always noticed that my creative thinking increases significantly when I'm riding in a car or on public transportation, on a walk or bike ride, or engaging in spontaneous tasks.

I'm not looking to debate if Vanessa Hill's theory is correct or not- I'm just interested in hearing similar ideas others may have for ways to distract oneself into a state of stimulated creative thought. Things I may not have thought of already, or that are not mentioned in the episode. "Take an improv class" is an obvious one, but I'd honestly prefer ideas that are more solitary or don't necessarily require engagement with other people.
posted by nightrecordings to Grab Bag (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think that Brian Eno's Oblique Strategies get to this a little. [Official] [One of many free web versions of questionable accuracy]

You could also combine (or use alone) some kind of random timer strategy. During your creative time, have your phone do something to get your attention every now and then.

Set up a bird/squirrel feeder where you can see it from your work space?
posted by sparklemotion at 5:00 PM on December 21, 2016

Check out the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. It has a section on deep breaks, which sounds like what you're talking about.
posted by Joe Chip at 5:02 PM on December 21, 2016

Housework is always a good distraction when I want to think about stuff yet also be physically busy. Put an open notebook on your desk to periodically jot down anything good you've come up with.

This game is the absolute best for keeping part of your brain busy while other parts are deep in thought.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 5:04 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I usually have strokes of genius when I'm waiting in the left turn lane for the green arrow, or in the shower. But housework and formatting excel tables works, too. (Not actual data entry, where I have to pay attention to what numbers I'm typing or writing formulas. Just the part where I go back and check the column widths and shading and make everything look polished)
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 8:11 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Washing dishes is a big one for me. Having strange or creative ideas while taking a shower or a bath is even a meme (shower thoughts). I'd say pretty much any activity where your brain goes on autopilot would work. Cooking something you already know how to make. Washing your hair. Brushing the dog.

Odd how many of these have to do with cleanliness.
posted by irisclara at 8:53 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes I write in coffee shops for this reason. The activity around me provides just enough distraction to give my subconscious a boost. You can sort of zone out and people watch for a bit while letting your brain mull something.
posted by Diablevert at 9:19 PM on December 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

For me the key is to do basically anything that doesn't require my full attention but physically prevents me from doing the creative thing I'm hoping to figure out—in my case writing, so anything that keeps me away from a keyboard. For me it's mostly just walking.
posted by Polycarp at 9:46 PM on December 21, 2016

The concept of "not consciously focusing on solving a problem leads to inspiration" is, I think, fairly well known amongst creative people - Stephen King often uses the metaphor of a factory of little people inside his head who do their best work when "Stephen King The Writer" isn't micromanaging them, and a lot of writers, musicians, and visual artists have pointed out that "working" can look an awful lot like casual doodling or atonal noodling or staring blankly into space. I just read an interview with Steve Vai (the guitar player) where he says he watches TV with a guitar in his lap and plays along to the soundtrack, and since he's kind of stumbling along as the soundtrack whizzes past and only half concentrating, his fingers "discover" little bits and phrases that often wind up in his music.

For a lot of people, though, I think it's less about "distraction" and more simply "not actively concentrating", so things like taking a walk, taking a bath, gardening, cooking, cleaning can all be useful. As irisclara says, things where your brain goes on autopilot - to put it in terms of the video, where your "executive attention network" is not focused on a creative task. Motion or physical effort are pretty common because your executive attention is on "Don't bump into that tree" or "Don't cut your finger as you chop carrots."

Which is to say, I think you may be getting a little, um, distracted by the idea of distracting yourself to stimulate creativity, and I'm not sure things like improv classes will quite get you what you're looking for - they can require a level of "creative concentration" that's almost the opposite of what the video is talking about. I think what a lot of creative people do is not so much actively distract themselves as do something fairly simple where their "executive attention network" is focused on a mundane task which kind of frees up more brainpower for the "imagination network."
posted by soundguy99 at 9:52 PM on December 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: [self link] i have a bash script that prints an oblique strategy for the day here.

the ultimate in distraction is going to sleep - "sleeping on a problem" is famous for its effectiveness. a long hot shower in the morning seems to help too.
posted by andrewcooke at 5:36 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I just saw a video in which David Crosby (of Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young) said his song ideas often came to him just before sleep. In the Freudian view, would this be when the Super Ego gives up control? (not my area).

You can probably get the bus riding/jazz effect while exercising indoors if that works better for you.

I know when someone presents me with a problem, I often say I have to think about it, but I don't consciously work on it, but it's better to put it aside for while and come back to it.

I read somewhere an anecdote in which an art professor say of something that it "smelled of the lamp", i.e. it had the hallmarks of being laboriously worked out late at night rather than being a spontaneous creation.
posted by SemiSalt at 6:45 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Roller skating. Just around and around the rink. It totally turns off the chatter in your head because you're trying not to skate into people, but it's meditative as soon as you find your skating legs.
posted by Frowner at 6:45 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Twyla Tharp's game "egg" is designed for this and actually works.
posted by athirstforsalt at 9:30 AM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Be mildly sleep deprived. Sounds weird, but I've often written good jokes while in a hurry after getting 6 hours of sleep, whereas it's impossible for me to write jokes by just sitting down and thinking.
posted by glass origami robot at 12:52 PM on December 22, 2016

Best answer: What specifically does it for me are distracting environments that aren't super laden with explicitly symbolic information. For whatever reason being on a city street, with signs and text and pictograms everywhere, really inhibits that deep brain from coming to the surface for me. Walking in parks is great for this, and they don't even have to be particularly pretty, although it can help.

Re the sleep thing, a technique for harnessing hypnagogic imagery without fully falling asleep and thereby forgetting it that I've heard attributed to Dali is to get in a comfortable position somewhere where you could fall asleep while holding a spoon hanging over the floor in one arm. If you drift off and your hand goes slack, you drop the spoon and wake up to its clattering, and hopefully you more easily remember whatever images you saw in the previous minutes. I can second the experience that glass origami robot talks about of getting a creative boost from being slightly sleep deprived, but for me it's always a real crapshoot as to whether it ends up being mildly stimulating or just sort of shitting up my day.
posted by invitapriore at 4:44 PM on December 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, if you have any pets, just resolving to do nothing but pet them for a few minutes (assuming they're willing), rather than petting them while absent-mindedly doing something else, or just in between two other things you were going to do, has this effect for me. In general I find that, whatever suggestions you roll with from this thread, asserting to yourself that they're the Thing You're Doing Right Now instead of a distraction from the Real Thing on your schedule is an important part of giving your mind the freedom to wander fruitfully.
posted by invitapriore at 4:48 PM on December 22, 2016

Best answer: Lynda Barry has students in her writing and drawing workshops draw a spiral while listening to something - other students reading their work, or music; it varies. The practice is mentioned in The Paris Review and The New York Times and in this workshop handout.
posted by kristi at 12:19 PM on December 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

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