Not thinking about a problem for a while doesn’t just give you a fresh perspective when you come back to it. It also allows your more creative unconscious to get to work as it “…ventures out to the dark and dusty nooks and crannies of the mind”.
That’s according to Ap Dijksterhuis and Teun Meurs at the University of Amsterdam, who were keen to show that the benefits of taking a break from thinking hard about a problem are not merely passive (for example, by freeing you from an incorrect line of thought), but that unconscious thought actually offers an alternative, active mode of thinking that is more divergent and creative.
In one experiment Dijksterhuis and Meurs asked 87 students to think of as many new names for pasta as they could, giving them five examples of existing names that all began with the letter ‘i’. Those students who were engaged in a distracter task for three minutes before giving their suggestions thought of far more varied names than students who were given three minutes to concentrate on thinking of new names (they mostly thought of new names beginning with ‘i’).
In another experiment, students were asked to think of places in Holland beginning with the letter ‘A’. Those students who were distracted before being asked to give their suggestions named a wide variety of cities, towns and villages, whereas students who were given time to think of places, and students who answered immediately, tended to just name the most obvious main cities in Holland.
Finally, students were asked to name as many uses as they could for a brick. Again, students who were distracted by a different task before giving their suggestions, didn’t name more uses, but were judged by two independent raters to have proposed more creative and unusual uses than students who were given dedicated time to think, or than students who answered immediately.
“Upon being confronted with a task that requires a certain degree of creativity, it pays off to delegate the labour of thinking to the unconscious mind”, the authors concluded.
Dijksterhuis, A. & Meurs, T. (2006). Where creativity resides: The generative power of unconscious thought. Consciousness and Cognition, 15, 135-146.
Link to recent research, also by Dijksterhuis, showing that it's best not to consciously deliberate when making big decisions like which house or car to buy. BBC coverage here.
Link to article in The Psychologist celebrating psychology's rediscovery of 'the irrational' (BPS members only).
Link to New Scientist special issue on creativity.
Link to Scientific American Mind issue on creativity.