Designers: turn off your phone – harness the wandering mind

Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson

Fireside reflection at Hazel Hill wood. Photographer: Peter Clarkson

I recently read Daniel Goleman’s excellent book Focus, and I have been thinking about how our ability to focus affects our ability to design. This thinking was the basis of a workshop session that I recently wrote about harnessing ‘wandering mind’, that mode in which the brain roams freely and forms new associations which are the basis of creative thought. I piloted this material as part of Think Up workshop on creativity that we ran at Hazel Hill wood in July, which seemed to go down well, so I am sharing it here.

Below is a modified extract from some of the course materials associated with this activity. I’d be interested to know if anyone reading recognises these phenomena or tries the approach I am recommending.

In his book Focus, emotional intelligence pioneer Daniel Goleman explains that the brain can really be understood as having two distinct sets of circuitry: the lower brain and upper brain. The lower brain whirs away in the background working on solving problems without us even noticing. Its activity only comes to our attention when it produces an idea as if from nowhere. The upper brain by contrast is the seat of self-control and is the part of the brain that we actively focus on a problem.

In evolutionary terms, the lower brain is the older part. The lower brain is the source of our impulses and emotional reactions. The upper brain can repress these impulses, but at the cost of diverting our attention from the design challenge on which we want to actively direct our focus. In this instance, the lower brain circuitry is causing a hindrance to creative thinking.

However, the lower brain does have a crucially important role to play in design. Research shows that in the moments before people achieve creative insight, their lower brain has been in a state of open awareness. In this state, the mind wanders freely, widely and without judgment to create new associations. When these new associations are made, the upper brain then locks in on them and fishes them out into our active attention.

In order to harness our wandering minds as part of the design process, our upper brain needs to be ready to spot a good idea when it emerges. To do this we need to do two things. The first is to make time in which we stop actively thinking about things and let out thoughts come to us, for example, going for walk or even going on holiday. The second is to minimise distractions, which divert our active attention away from spotting new ideas as they emerge from the lower brain. In other words, making time we when turn off our smart phones and blocking out interruptions.