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Learn To Use Mental Dispersion To Strengthen Creativity


Dispersion has become one of the most characteristic behaviors of our time, a type of novelty that can hold more advantages than we think.

Nowadays we are constantly confronted by a screen demanding our attention; whether this is our computers, phone, television sets or a film, street ads or an ecosystem of ads, becoming distracted is easier than ever before, and the attention required to solve a problem or to find innovative solutions is a rare and fleeting moment.

However, this might be precisely because we are used to feeling guilty for not being more creative, or because we do not pay more attention: according to large body of research, creativity is more closely connected to daydreaming and dispersion than with the intellectual effort of paying attention.

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Jonathan Schooler from the University of California believes that our brains are constantly solving problems, foreign to the ones we have to face during periods of apparent dispersion. The mythologies of great thinkers and geniuses (Einstein’s love for cycling, or the long walks that inspired Thoreau and Beethoven, or perhaps even Montaigne’s love for horse-riding come to mind as incentives for thought), have led us to think that distraction is a luxury, and that time should not be wasted. But it is precisely wasting time that can give our brain time to create certain associations and connections between experiences and memories, producing a feeling of eureka that is valuable and fleeting.

The founder of the innovation agency IDEO, David Kelley, recalls ‘relaxed attention’, a lesson he learnt from his teacher Bob McKim. With a disposition similar to that of meditation, this relaxed attention is a fancy name for ‘active daydreaming’, or the opportunity to allow yourself to inhabit every moment of the ideas that come to mind… and let them happen.

It would seem that trying to be creative is attained by acting as if trying did not exist, because failing does not exist either: allowing oneself to contemplate one’s mental landscapes for twenty minutes, while taking a stroll or lying down, can be the key to some of the greatest ideas and most interesting solutions.

This resembles the sort of attention required by Zen practitioners when facing a koan, a riddle whose logical answer is designed to increase the flexibility of the practitioner’s mind, well beyond the usual constrictions. In this way, the monk becomes the satori, the illumination, which shares many characteristics with the so-called eureka, when the answer we did not know we were seeking emerges from the midst of a daydream or a moment of distraction.

Tom and David Kelley from Wired go as far as to support a simple subversive act that transmutes dispersions into a source of creativeness (even before you get out of bed): when the alarm clock rings in the morning and we hit the snooze button, we sometimes feel some guilt because we refuse to get up quickly enough; but according to these authors, instead of considering these five more minutes a form of laziness, we could see them as perfect moments to exercise relaxed attention, the frontier between sleep and awakening.

Transforming the snooze button into a muse can help us kick-start our day with insight and freshness, a practice that can become more efficient through the re-elaboration of our dreams in this first state of semi-consciousness. At the same time, we can let our mind wander for an unlimited period of time before the business of the world demands our attention again.


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