Have you ever woke up one morning and hopped in the shower only to have an epiphany about a problem you’ve been trying to solve at work or school? You’re not alone. Both Albert Einstein, Sir Isaac Newton and Archimedes were also known to have brilliant flashes of inspiration when doing menial tasks. But why? What’s the key? New research conducted by University of California, Santa Barbara researchers suggests that allowing the mind to wander to other things not associated with the problem may be the answer.

The discovery was made by a team led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The researchers presented 145 undergraduate students with two ‘unusual uses’ tasks that gave them two minutes to list as many uses as possible for everyday objects such as toothpicks, clothes hangers and bricks.

After the two minutes were over, participants were given a 12-minute break, during which they rested, undertook a demanding memory activity that required their full attention or engaged in an undemanding reaction-time activity known to elicit mind-wandering. A fourth group of students had no break. All participants were then given four unusual-uses tasks, including the two that they had completed earlier.

Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed an average of 41% better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement. The work will be published shortly in Psychological Science1.

“We’ve traditionally found that rapid-eye-movement sleep grants creative insight. That allowing the mind to wander does the same is absolutely fascinating. I think they are on to something really interesting here,” says Sara Mednick, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside. (via Nature.com)

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