Extended periods of solitude can leave many of us climbing the walls for something to occupy our minds. Those who are creatively minded, however, relish the freedom to escape into their own mental universe.
US psychologists from the Universities of Arizona, Arkansas, and Minnesota, surveyed over 2,000 volunteers to better understand how creativity kicks in when we've got nothing better to do.
Individuals who were better at divergent thinking were less likely to experience boredom when left alone with their thoughts.
Though far from a surprising finding, it emphasizes differences between our minds in an unoccupied state, potentially impacting research that relies on comparing scans of brain activity while at rest.
It could also inform better ways to encourage people to appreciate their down time without feeling obligated to fill it with chores, work tasks, and odd jobs.
"Understanding why different people think the way they do may lead to promising interventions to improve health and well-being," says senior author Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a cognitive neuroscientist from the University of Arizona.
A global pandemic taught us that long periods of isolation are a condition few of us enjoy. There are a number of ways people cope with the pressures that come with solitude, not all of which are healthy.
For some, social distancing was a precious opportunity to take more frequent trips inside their own minds, filling those long hours with imagined stories, wild speculation, and unfettered leaping between loosely connected thoughts.
"In today's busy and digitally connected society, time to be alone with one's thoughts without distraction may be becoming a rare commodity," says Andrews-Hanna.
To get a better sense of what this looks like in real time, the researchers invited 90 volunteers to sit alone in a room without digital distractions for a whole 10 minutes, and simply blurt out whatever popped into their unconstrained minds.
A divergent thinking test provided the researchers with data on each participant's tendency to explore unconventional solutions to open questions like "How would you make money with 100 rubber bands?"
Analyzing the chain of ideas as they were spoken aloud gave the researchers some insight into the processes that allowed some to think outside the box.
"While many participants had a tendency to jump between seemingly unrelated thoughts, creative individuals showed signs of thinking more associatively," says Quentin Raffaeli, a psychology grad student at the University of Arizona.
They also spoke more, reflecting the free-flow of ideas, and rated themselves as less bored for that alone time.
In a second study, the team assessed 2,612 participants' responses to an online survey concerning creativity. The self-reported evaluations supported the first study's findings – suggesting creative people were less bored during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
Keeping in mind the subjectivity of self-identifying as creative, and challenges involved in making sense of the volunteers' musings on the economics of rubber band collections, it's clear we don't all occupy quiet time in the same way.
As quick as many of us might be to fill that 'dead time', losing focus and zoning out isn't as unproductive as we might imagine. Learning how to embrace our inner creativity and enjoy those moments could be beneficial.
"As we become more overworked, overscheduled and addicted to our digital devices, I think we need to do a better job in our homes, our workplaces and our schools to cultivate time to simply relax with our thoughts," says Andrews-Hanna.
This research was published in the Creativity Research Journal.