02/27/2011 11:55 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Daydreamers Are More Creative

In 1966, my mentor and colleague, Jerome L. Singer, published his seminal book, "Daydreaming: An Introduction to the Experimental Study of Inner Experience." Since then, the scientific study of daydreaming has taken off. A key theme that has emerged is the striking continuity between nightdreaming and daydreaming and the ability of creative people to harness this continuity. Neuroscience has allowed us to take this research to new, creative heights that were unimaginable when Singer published his book in '66.

Research shows that when most of us fall asleep, the brain network that involves attention to the outside world (the working memory network consisting primarily of the lateral frontal and parietal cortices) deactivates and our default brain network (medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices) takes over. The discovery of the default brain network is important, as it involves various aspects of our self, such as our self-representations, dreams, imagination, current concerns, autobiographical memory and perspective-taking ability. Those with higher default network activity during rest have a tendency to daydream more frequently, which makes sense if one thinks of the default network as involving our inner stream of consciousness.

When most of us awaken, our working memory brain network re-engages, and our default brain network recedes into the background. In most people, the working memory network and the default network "anticorrelate" with each other, meaning that when one network is activated, the other is deactivated. This is generally a good thing! Proper connectivity (i.e., communication) between the two networks allows people to know when it's important to distinguish between pure fantasy (their inner stream of consciousness) and "reality" (the external world).

But that's most people. Creative folks and those with schizophrenia tend to have an overactive default network. Prior research has suggested that the thing that seems to differentiate creative but functional individuals from those in a mental institution is that the functional folks appear to have the ability to engage both brain networks, and they can use their working memory network to control their attention. Those who lose grip on reality and become paranoid and delusional have let the floodgates down, so to speak, letting too much of their default network control their attention.

A recent fascinating experiment takes things to the next level. The researchers investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a working memory task. Importantly, none of their subjects had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness, and all had intact working memory abilities. They administered two different versions of the same working memory task during the fMRI scanning session, one version requiring much more concentration than the other. Their more difficult working memory task required constant updating of information in memory while having to resist distraction.

Participants were asked to display their creativity in a number of ways: generating unique ways of using typical objects, imagining desirable functions in ordinary objects and imagining the consequences of "unimaginable things" happening. The creativity test they used has been linked in prior studies to Openness to Experience and frequency of visual hypnagogic experiences (e.g. lucid dreaming, hallucinations), which in turn have been associated with vividness of mental imagery.

The researchers found that the more creative the participant, the more activity in their default-mode network was altered. Particularly, creative individuals had difficulty suppressing the precuneus area of their default network while engaging in the more effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area of the default network that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task). The precuneus has been linked to self-related mental representations and episodic memory retrieval.

How is this conducive to creativity? According to the researchers, "Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks."

Intriguingly, prior research has shown a similar inability to deactivate the default network among those with working memory deficits, as well as schizophrenic individuals and their relatives (who are more likely to have schizotypy). The key to functional creativity, then, seems to be the ability to keep one's internal stream of consciousness "on call" while being able to concentrate on a task.

In a related interesting and informative article for The Wall Street Journal entitled "Bother Me, I'm Thinking," Jonah Lehrer discusses the importance of distraction for creativity. He discusses a recent study showing that A.D.H.D. is associated with creative achievement. He also mentions a study conducted by Shelley Carson and her colleagues at Harvard in 2005, which found among a sample of high I.Q. individuals that eminent creative achievers (as eminent as can be under the age of 21!) were seven times more likely to have reduced latent inhibition. Latent inhibition is a filtering mechanism that we share with other animals, and it is tied to the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Lehrer defines "latent inhibition" as the ability to focus, such as being distracted by an air conditioner while trying to solve math problems. But this is not quite right. Technically, latent inhibition involves the ability to consider something as relevant even if it was previously tagged as irrelevant. A reduced latent inhibition allows us to treat something as novel, no matter how may times we've seen it before.

In my own research, I found that latent inhibition and an intellectual cognitive style are not related to one another; intelligence and latent inhibition seem to be independent abilities (at least in people with a normally functioning working memory system). I also found that those with a reduced latent inhibition have more confidence in their intuitions. This is probably because those with a reduced latent inhibition actually have more accurate intuitions!

So instead of strictly measuring distractibility, latent inhibition tasks measure a form of mental flexibility. It's not that people with a reduced latent inhibition always treat the irrelevant as relevant; it's just that they consider everything as potentially relevant. And this is conducive to creativity because sometimes the seemingly irrelevant is relevant!

This distinction is subtle, but really important. I have seen too many journalists confuse the meaning of latent inhibition. My colleagues -- such as Shelley Carson, Oshin Vartanian, Liane Gabora and Darya Zabelina -- and I have been investigating the ability of creative individuals to switch modes of thought depending on the task demands. This is a very exciting new area of research!

The way I see it, it's not distractibility, per se, that is the most relevant thing for creativity. Instead, I think the key is to keep your wonder and excitement for the world, being open to everything in the environment as well as your own internal stream of consciousness. I think putting things in these terms allows for more useful practical applications.

I agree with the spirit of Lehrer's call on his blog for a greater appreciation of "impulsive expression" in the classroom. But I'm not sure teaching students to exhibit more A.D.H.D. is the right way to go. I think it's more reasonable to teach people in society (including the classroom and workforce) to be open and mentally flexible and encourage the use of imagination while still maintaining the ability to concentrate. We don't have to promote either working memory skills or imagination and daydreaming. We can promote both. And in so doing, we are promoting true creativity -- creativity that is both novel and useful.