Try to imagine yourself sitting quietly and not thinking about anything.
Probably after a second or two of blankness a thought will pop up.
Suddenly you’re thinking again.
Our brains seem desperate to keep themselves busy. So much so that neuroscientists have defined a network of brain regions that spring into action whenever our attention lapses. They have dubbed this the Default Network. Its activity is so pronounced that our brains burn 20 times as much energy when our mind wanders as they do when we are focussing on a particular task, such as reading this post.
The Default Network activity supplies a constant stream of commentary. Most of the time this internal monologue is entirely inward-looking and dwells on the ordinary and everyday:
“Don’t forget to move tomorrow’s meeting.”
“Ooh, what’s for dinner.”
“Why did I say that to my boss?”
Sometimes, however, our inner voice throws up completely unexpected nuggets of creativity that bloom into elaborate daydreams. Indeed, a recent neuroimaging study took a direct look at the brains of musicians engaged in spontaneous jazz improvisation. The most active brain region during freeform improvisation (compared to playing learnt pieces) was a crucial component of the Default Network called the medial prefrontal cortex.
Clearly then our Default Network is capable of generating both the mundane and the sublime. If we want to harness the creative power of this system, we have to learn how to sift the tittle-tattle of our self-obsessed internal narrative from the sparklingly inventive connections of our best daydreams.
In this endeavour, like most acts of creation, perhaps it is best to start with a blank canvas. Here mindfulness-based practices such as meditation and yoga might have something to offer. A study published last year examined the brain activity of experienced meditators. Compared to meditating novices, practised subjects were able to dramatically shut down several components of the Default Network and therefore block out their inner narrative.
However, far from meditation representing a state of mental inactivity, the researchers reported significantly increased activity in several brain regions. Most prominent of these was the dorso-lateral prefrontal cortex, an area uniquely important for intense awareness and self-scrutiny. This precise region was significantly de-activated in the improvising jazz musicians of the previous study.
Perhaps then practicing mindfulness gives us the tools to quieten the staccato bursts of the self-obsessed Default Network, which are so often an impediment to creative thought. In doing this it can help to prepare the ground for the emergence of creative ideas. The self-awareness taught by mindfulness can then help us to notice when interesting ideas bubble up and therefore help us to translate our daydreams into tangible creative output.