Why washing-up makes you creative

You've got exactly two minutes to come up with as many unusual uses as for a brick as you can.


Go.


Now you've got another two minutes - how many unusual uses can you come up with for a plastic cup?


Go.


This is called the Unusual Uses Task (UUT) - a robust measure of creative thinking. You're scored on the originality, as well as the number, of the uses you come up with for each object.


This task was used in a recent study by Benjamin Baird and colleagues to examine the effect of mind-wandering and distraction on creative thought. The participants completed a baseline UUT test, where they were given two objects in succession. They were then assigned to one of four conditions, the first three of which involved a 12 minute 'incubation' period. This is a time during which creative thoughts can develop if the conditions are right.

  • Condition one - participants were given a cognitively demanding task for 12 minutes

  • Condition two - participants were given a very undemanding task for 12 minutes

  • Condition three - participants were asked to sit quietly and rest for 12 minutes

  • Condition four - participants were given no incubation period at all

Then the participants were given another UUT test. This time four objects were presented to them, in random order - two of the objects were the same as they had been tested on before, and the other two were new objects. Just as before, they had two minutes per object to generate as many unusual uses as they could.


The results


UUT results for the repeat exposure condition

First of all let's look at the what the researchers call the repeat exposure condition. These are the UUT scores for the objects seen both before and again after the incubation period. Specifically, the researchers were interested in the post-incubation scores here. What they found is that the participants who engaged in an undemanding task during the 12-minute incubation period displayed significantly greater improvement than any of the other conditions. They were coming up with more unique, creative uses for the object they'd seen before.


The new-exposure condition examined the post incubation UUT scores for the objects not seen before. What they found here was that there was no difference between any of the groups - the demanding or undemanding cognitive task had no differential effect on participants' UUT score. In fact, the participants who simply rested or had no incubation period at all also scored about the same.


Lastly, the researchers found that there were no differences between any of the conditions in the degree to which they were thinking about the first UUT task. In other words, the participants doing the undemanding cognitive task were not thinking explicitly about the creativity problems they had been given at the start of the test any more than participants in any of the other conditions. Yet they still did much better when shown the same objects after their 12 minute incubation period.


What can we make of all this?


There are some quite specific conclusions arising from this, which are really the only way to explain the pattern of results.


The first point is that creative thinking and creative problem solving happens most effectively when you're doing a simple task that's unrelated to the problem you're trying to solve, like washing-up for example. This could be because the simple task prohibits narrow, concentrated thought and instead allows for mind wandering, which is associated with more fluid, wide-ranging, creative thought.


The second important point is that, if we accept the mind wandering idea, we also have to accept that, in this study, the mind wandering that came with undemanding task only enhanced creativity for a previously experienced problem. So mind wandering seems to help the process of turning over a problem in your mind. But there's further caveat - this process does not seem to happen in a directly conscious way because we have to remember that no group indicated that they had been thinking about the first UUT task to any greater degree than the others.


The mind wandering idea does seem strong though, because the researcher in this study also found a positive correlation between participants' general propensity to mind wander in every day life and their scores on all the UUT tasks.


The neuroscience of mind wandering


The researchers point out that there is a potential neuroscientific explanation for the creative benefits of mind wandering. It's during mind wandering that the executive and default mode networks in the brain interact. This seems to be the perfect partnership for creative thought - the default mode has the wide-ranging fluidity and the executive network has the directional purpose to move your thoughts toward a solution. Indeed, there's some good supporting evidence for this interaction.


The tortured creative genius


There's one interesting, if not altogether happy, footnote to all of this and that's the finding that mind wandering, as well as being associated with creativity, is also associated with being unhappy. This seems to fit quite well with the idea of the tortured creative genius. So maybe there's a compromise to be had - your mind is good place to wander around, but not to get lost in.