While youâ€™re zoned out, the brain activates what neuroscientists have identified as a â€œdefault networkâ€. This area is especially active when people are reflecting on their personal experience or imagining the future, typical daydreaming preoccupations.
During complex reasoning, the mind switches to an â€œexecutive networkâ€, which is better suited to pursuing immediate goals. This top down system is more efficient at rational problem solving, but unlikely to produce any unexpected breakthroughs.
Occasionally both areas of the brain will be active at the same time. This state is critical to generating that eureka moment. John Kounios of Drexel University looked at images of the brain at the moments before someone realizes the answer to a puzzle. What he found was a flash of activity from both the default and executive networks, almost as if the two were working in concert to produce the inspiration.
Jonah Lehrer, writing in the New Yorker, points to Joy Bhattacharya, a psychologist at Goldsmiths, University of London says he can tell when test subjects will solve a puzzle a full eight seconds before they arrive at the answer. A crucial clue was the appearance of alpha waves, which typically correlate with a state of relaxation.
There are lots of ways to foster this kind of creativity. Jogging, knitting or just doodling can relax the mind and set it off down a whimsical path. The trick, according to leading researcher Dr. Jonathan Schooler, is to be ready for a good idea when it comes.
â€œFor creativity you need your mind to wander,â€ Schooler recently told the NY Times. â€œBut you also need to be able to notice that youâ€™re mind wandering and catch the idea when you have it. If Archimedes had come up with a solution in the bathtub but didnâ€™t notice heâ€™d had the idea, what good would it have done him?â€