Columns, Imagine That

What a day for a daydream

Staying focused is a trait that we especially value in this fast-paced time. A constant state of focused attention doesn’t seem like a bad thing. We encourage our kids to focus on homework rather than daydreaming and idling. However, can too much focus actually detract from creativity?

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about a two-year-old girl who talked to herself at length before falling asleep as her brain glided into the alpha state associated with daydreaming. Writes Gladwell, “Emily’s conversations with herself were more advanced than conversations with her parents. … She was creating stories, narratives that explained and organized the things that happened to her, … a process that is a critical part of a child’s mental development.”

Laura Mann

George de Mestral was out walking his dogs and thinking about nothing in particular when the idea for Velcro hit him. “People assume that when your mind wanders it is empty,” says Kalina Christoff, a cognitive neuro-scientist at the University of British Columbia. But her research found that “Mind wandering is a more active state than imagined, much more active than during reasoning a complex problem.”

Allow creativity to happen naturally, rather than numbing the brain into an artificial state of relaxation.

In order to understand how creativity works, we must know a little bit about brain waves. There are four main types of brain waves emitted during different states: delta, associated with deep sleep; theta, with REM sleep; alpha, with a relaxed daydreaming state; and beta, with focused attention.

Creativity researcher Colin Martindale of the University of Maine was one of the first scientists to measure brain wave activity while subjects were engaged in creative tasks, such as free drawing and divergent-thinking exercises. And he found that the most creative participants had higher levels of alpha waves during the creative process. In other words, the brain is most inclined towards creative expression when one is in a relaxed, defocused state.

Standing for attention

How can this be applied to fostering creativity in children? Well, for one thing, allow your kids some time to relax between school, homework, and extracurriculars. Author Tyler Enfield of the Creativity Portal suggests that parents “create a safe environment where [kids] can explore creativity on their own.” Rethink the concept of me-time for your kids by turning off screens for a little while. Allow creativity to happen naturally, rather than numbing the brain into an artificial state of relaxation. Playing music can be good — even if your child likes screeching emo or thumping rap; music of all kinds can inspire creative activity.

Noticing your child’s attention level throughout the day can help you plan activities around when your child is most creative. Colin Martindale found that, when performing a creative task, participants’ performance was most consistently strong when they reached a midpoint between low and high levels of arousal, the lowest level being sleep and the highest level being fight-or-flight panic. A child who is clawing the walls with energy might not be the best candidate to sit down and do homework. If your child has an assignment for school and is having trouble coming up with ideas, try simple relaxation exercises: a brief walk, deep breathing, closing one’s eyes and humming for a moment. (The latter works like magic for me.)

Focusing on the problem and trying really hard to come up with solutions is often not the best way to generate ideas. Our brains are remarkable tools, and they often work best when we leave them to their own devices.

In this busy, fast-paced world, we could all use a little relaxation. Scientists have shown that the need for relaxation isn’t frivolous; it’s vital to the creative process. Help your kids relax and take a few moments off, and their creativity could soar. In fact, so could yours.

Imagine that!

Laura Mann is a freelance writer and blogger, and a student in Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas. She often co-authors the “Imagine That!” column with her father, storyteller Michael Mann. This column was written by Laura.

© Michael Mann, 2010, all rights retained. Printed by permission of the author.

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