Eureka! The Value of a Wandering Mind

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When does it happen for you?

It usually comes to me when I’m walking the dog or in the shower. It almost never comes when I am at my desk (or wherever I happen to find myself in need of inspiration). But during a routine task when I begin to daydream, that is when I have those eureka moments.

The story of Charlie Townes on a Washington, DC park bench, which Greg shared last week, is not at all unusual. There are many stories of scientists finding profound insights while daydreaming.

The insights I grasp in such moments are usually pretty mundane by comparison (although I hope some of them will help the church to better engage with science). For Townes, it led to the discovery of the maser (the precursor to the laser) and a Nobel Prize. For many persons of faith, past and present, it can also lead to the discernment of God’s will.

It also turns out that those eureka moments, revelations that can appear while our minds wander, are the subject of scientific study.

In a Daydream

For several years now, researchers having been looking at the links between creativity – often but not always of the eureka form – and mind wandering. I love this work probably because daydreaming is a skill I mastered early – just ask my mother –and one that I maintain to this day – just ask my wife.

Researchers have found that our minds wander nearly half our waking time and it is most common during mundane tasks like grooming, exercising, shopping, and working. It also appears that the tech in your pocket may be reducing the amount your mind wanders because reading emails like this one fills up time that was once spent in a daydream.

Researchers also suggest that for most folks, mind-wandering is not a good thing. A straying mind leads to—in fact it may actually be the cause of—decreased levels of happiness.

But then it also is associated with benefits like creativity. Similar to the old adage—‘sleep on it’—a wandering mind offers a period of incubation for the mind to consider solutions to the various problems and tasks we are facing. Many scientists like Townes did not have their eureka moments while laboring in their office or lab, but rather on a park bench, or in some other setting conducive to a daydream.

It seems this may be the case for divine revelation as well. For Biblical figures, it came when sleeping on it (Jacob, Samuel or Elijah), or when working (Moses and those Shepherds in Luke tending their flocks), or traveling down the road (Paul). I hear from pastors that sermon inspiration often comes while exercising or showering or driving rather than those hours set aside for writing Sunday’s sermon.

The research on insight adds an important caveat here: when faced with a challenge or a task and in need of immediate inspiration, mind-wandering may not lead to a eureka moment. Rather, you need to take in the details and understand all aspects of the task first. If you haven’t wrestled with the matter, then walking the dog or taking a shower probably won’t help.

  • Scientists really are quite creative. Does your ministry utilize their creativity?
  • Krista Tippet interviews a neuroscientist who studies creativity.
  • Last week, Greg told us the story of a Nobel Prize winning discovery that came in a moment of mind wandering.

Divine Inspiration

Of course, the way our minds process information and arrive at creative insights could be the same for all sorts of tasks—be they scientific, artistic, or even prophetic. How Townes discovered the laser may be nearly identical to the creative spark that led Michelangelo to sculpt the 17-foot statue of David. And it could also be nearly the same to how a prophet receives revelation.

What intrigues me is the apparent tension between a focused mind and a wandering one. A common refrain in training—including the development of spiritual disciplines—harps on focused attention and the control of the wandering mind as a way to achieve the desired gains. That is to say, we are to be disciplined and focused in spending time with God and with Scripture as we seek insight. Who teaches their employees or their congregations to daydream in hopes of inspiration?

Again, research has shown that there is a place for controlling the mind, even mindfulness training (often through meditation practices). Not all problem solving or creativity comes out of a daydream. Even more, a eureka moment rarely comes to a problem we have not properly considered. In fact, one of the best practices to cultivate creativity is to mull over the situation right before sleep (or before we let our minds wander).

I’m not sure scientists have discovered the perfect balance between the focused and straying mind. In fact, the perfect balance probably varies from individual to individual. But as a church seeking insight—all of which I believe comes from God—we can use this science to help cultivate creativity that enhances our ministry, meets the needs of all of God’s children, and reveals God’s love to all those unhappy mind-wanderers who are wondering if life has any meaning.

The church needs more eureka moments and maybe this line of scientific research can actually help us improve how we listen for God and respond creatively.


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