One of the lessons of my article on insight (based largely on this research) is that mind wandering isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least if you want to tap into the obscure associations prevalent in the right hemisphere:
Schooler’s research has also led him to reconsider the bad reputation of mind wandering. Although we often complain that the brain is too easy to distract, Schooler believes that mind-wandering is an essential mental tool. “Just look at the history of science,” he says, “The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they’re doing something that has nothing to do with their research.” He cites the example of Henri Poincare, the 19th century mathematician, whose seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry arrived while he was boarding a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step [of the bus],” Poincare wrote, “the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.” Poincare credited his sudden mathematical insight to “the work of the unconscious,” which continued to mull over the mathematics while he was preoccupied with unrelated activities, like talking to a friend on the bus. In his 1908 essay “Mathematical Creation,” Poincare insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good has been accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey”.(Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7-Up, “watch the entertainment” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.
And now, via David Peak, comes this fascinating anecdote about Maya Angelou’s writing process. He notes that Angelou “used to play solitaire when she wrote her poetry, claiming that by using her ‘little brain,’ she was unlocking her ‘big brain.’” Other research suggests that distracting your conscious attention with puzzles is also an ideal way to make big, complicated decisions.
PS. In the comments, Celeste makes a great point:
It’s exactly why writing in poetic forms can be so effective and liberating. By focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions (syllabic, accentual, rhyme, etc.), you become open to ideas and themes you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.