Albert Einstein’s above statement may in fact be more fitting in today’s society than ever before. Due to the excessively high volume of information we process on a day to day basis, it is important to recognise the balance between the information quality and quantity. In neurological terms, the left side of the brain is analytical and detail-oriented and it produces the continuous brain chatter, jumping from one thought to another, where the right brain thinks intuitively and holistically, and learns through the senses. However, we tend to live in a left-brained world and utilising our intuitive minds is commonly neglected as it is seen as a distraction to our rational thoughts – waste of our practical brainpower.
Our brains are at a constant go and the flow of serendipitous and novel thoughts and insights is – often deliberately – avoided, for we are told that the ultimate key to success is to focus; focusing your mind, focusing your thoughts and keeping your eye on the target. One of the scientific reasons behind the left- brain taking over our thoughts is the fact that it not only rationalises, but also justifies whereas the right-side responds to any negative consequences or feedback with intuition rather than justification. So in order to protect ourselves, we rationalise and justify our behaviour. But when we are over-utilising our left-brain, intensely focused on the facts, how are we able to simultaneously remain curious and creative? Although remaining focused can of course bring us success, this focus can also be counter-productive in many ways; shaping into a narrow-minded approach, a ‘tunnel vision’, and in result we are losing awareness of what is happening around us. So the question is: how can we find a degree of balance for our thoughts and ideas, fluctuating somewhere between a state of unimaginativeness and a scatterbrain?
Internationally renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman introduced a term open awareness, meaning a form of attentiveness and a source of creativity, characterised by being utterly receptive of whatever floats into one’s mind. This allows our minds to be open to imagination and open to surprise. However, achieving the state of open awareness is not necessarily a simple or speedy process. When you think about it, for many of us it can be a somewhat uncommon experience in our modern society to be in complete solitude, in the company of nobody else but ourselves. This is to not only be alone in our thoughts but also digitally away from everyone else – no gadgets, no smartphones, no alerts or messages. This is the type of solitude and awareness that can allow our minds to wander.
Neurological studies suggest that half of our thoughts are in fact daydreams – drifting thoughts that switch from personal problems to unresolved dilemmas. However, this is often when novel connections are made and creative insight happens. All of us can relate to a time when the problem we should have been focusing our thoughts on can seem too intimidating or challenging to consciously process or think about, and then, out of the blue, we experience an ‘a-ha’ moment in the midst of our wondering thoughts. Our minds have unconsciously, or unthinkingly, done the thinking for us.
In addition to generating new ideas, Goleman suggests that other benefits for this mind-wandering are self-reflection and the navigation of social situations. Whilst self-reflection increases our awareness of ourselves, the reflection of social situations increases our awareness of others. However, perhaps crucially, another benefit is simply giving the brain a restoring break. Our brain can be like an overworked muscle if we stay intensely focused for too long — it gets tired when we push to the point of cognitive exhaustion. But taking a break can help regain focus and make you more productive. We all need time and space to reflect and let our thoughts run free and letting the mind wander is important for attention restoration. For an effective restoration that will truly revive your brainpower, we should avoid the kind of activity that puts a demand on our attention. Such activities as meditation or walking through a park or a forest, or generally being part of the nature can trigger bottom-up attention in our brain and thus giving the higher level – top-down – circuits a break, which effects in general improvement in one’s cognition. By increasing the right-brain we increase not only our awareness of the differences of the left and the right brain, but also the balance and productivity of our thoughts and actions.
In conclusion, we must remember that not all information is necessarily power and sometimes we may need to take a break. We need to go beyond the facts and tap into our right brain; letting the open awareness of our intuition and imagination take over the excessive flow of information to reach our ‘a-ha’ –moment.