K. M. Allan talks us through four reasons to use internal thoughts in our writing.
A majestic cypress tree grew outside my grade 11 classroom window, eons ago. I remember spending hours staring at it, exploring its velvety green branches and reflecting on the boredom of my classes and wondering what I might do with my life when I was finally and blessedly allowed to escape school.
Fortunately, perhaps because I could be counted upon to get good grades, my teachers failed to notice my inattention, and they never criticized me for daydreaming. Also, fortunately, this was several decades before cell phones and I didn’t have an easier way of distracting myself with something most of us see as “entertaining.”
These days, when I’m bored, I tend to go to the online New York Times and read an article on my phone. I might do this while I’m waiting for a meeting to start, standing in a bank lineup (although I try to avoid that easily-preventable form of torture) or killing time before a doctor/dentist appointment.
Now, however, I’m starting to think I might be better off just allowing my mind to wander. I concluded this after reading some research from scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany and the University of York in England.
Over the last several generations, our society has tended to view mind wandering as a failure in control. Now, however, neuroscientists are able to tell us that it’s actually an advantage. “We found that in people who often purposefully allow their minds to go off on a tangent, the cortex is thicker in some prefrontal regions,” says Johannes Golchert, from Leipzig, and first author of the study. (Increased cortical thickness is associated with greater intelligence.)
The study also found that when people intentionally allow their minds to wander, two main brain networks — the default-mode network and the frontoparietal network — tend to work more closely together. This helps writers because the first network, which focuses on information from memory and the second one, which inhibits irrelevant stimuli, are both more effective when they work together.
The secret to mind wandering, however, is not to try too hard. Researcher Michael Corballis, who is author of the book The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking, suggests doing “semi-boring” things like driving or knitting, which engage our brains just the right amount yet still allow us to escape from the present. Others suggest three Bs for creativity: bath, bed and bus. Although Corballis likes to add two more: boardroom and boredom.
For Damon Young, Honorary Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Melbourne, another B helps with mind wandering: body movement. In his book, How to Think About Exercise, he describes how walking or running can increase our creativity.
“It’s like you’re removing the symphony conductor from your mind, and suddenly it starts playing improvisational jazz,” he says. “When that happens, your mind starts throwing up interesting ideas, impressions, feelings, epiphanies and revelations that you otherwise would not have had.”
Young attributes the difference to something about the movement itself. “[It’s] partly because the body is devoting its energy to motor functions of moving and partly because you’re taking resources away from the part that co-ordinates ideas,” he says. “It’s a kind of mental ‘unsorting’ that takes away categories and relationships of ideas and jiggles them about into new combinations.”
As for me, I like to use mind wandering as part of my writing practice in two ways:
1-I begin by planning some thinking time, away from my desk. I like to walk and think about what I’m going to write. But I do this thinking in an easy, ultra-relaxed way. My mind wanders and I let it go in whatever direction it wants, merely observing. This is part of the reason why it’s so important for me to get away from my desk. I don’t want to sit there feeling critical of myself for not being ‘more productive.’ It’s as if the act of walking gives me permission to take a slower, more circuitous — although, ultimately, more productive — route.
2-After the time away from my desk, I do a mindmap. This mindmap — which is freer, more easy-going and far more inspiring than an outline — allows me to think on the page. I try to write quickly, allowing my default network to remain in more control so that my linear, logical and non-creative brain is forced to take a back seat. See my video about mindmapping for more advice.
In the future, I’m also going to think about leaving my phone shut off when I have a few minutes to wait for something. I’m going to try to stop resenting the act of having to wait and, instead, see it as a chance to relax, think of new things and just let my mind wander wherever it wants to go.
With luck, it will take me somewhere interesting.