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Contemplation can help problem-solving and boost creativity, study claims

People prefer to keep busy rather than to enjoy a moment of reflection, researchers find

Woman looking through window
The German academics said people enjoy letting their minds wander once given the chance, though some still find it strenuous. Photograph: Dmytro Betsenko/Alamy
The German academics said people enjoy letting their minds wander once given the chance, though some still find it strenuous. Photograph: Dmytro Betsenko/Alamy

Losing oneself in one’s thoughts or letting the mind wander is an underrated activity that is more rewarding the more it is practised, an academic study has claimed.

Psychologists who studied a group of more than 250 people encouraged to engage in directionless contemplation or free-floating thinking said that the activity was far more satisfying than the participants had anticipated.

The academics, from the University of Tübingen in southern Germany, were keen to find out why, despite being the only species capable of sitting still and thinking to themselves, humans are generally reluctant to make use of this talent.

They say their series of experiments culminating in their study show that people enjoy letting their minds wander once given the chance to do it, though some still find it a strenuous activity.

They also revealed that – as previous studies have demonstrated – losing yourself in your thoughts can aid problem solving, increase creativity, enhance the imagination and contribute to a sense of self-worth.

Despite this, most people are more likely to let themselves be distracted than to delve into their own thoughts or just stare out the window.

Smartphones have inevitably made it easier to seek and find distraction and have contributed to a loss of the habit of free thinking, the authors believed. Some people simply found it hard to spend time with their own thoughts, especially if they tended towards negative thinking, they said.

The study’s leader, Kou Murayama, the professor of pedagogical psychology at the University of Tübingen, said people generally found it hard to estimate the extent to which contemplation was something to be valued; rather, they considered other activities as more attractive – until they were encouraged to let their minds wander.

“This could explain why people prefer to keep busy rather than to enjoy a moment of reflection or letting their imagination run away with itself in their everyday lives,” Murayama said.

The study, in which 259 people took part, has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

The experiments included asking participants to estimate the extent to which they would appreciate sitting on their own and thinking to themselves for 20 minutes. They were forbidden to use a smartphone, to read, or to walk around.

According to the results, every one of them found their enjoyment at letting their minds wander was far greater than they had expected. This remained the case even when the experiment conditions were altered, including putting participants alone in a sparse conference room, placing them in a dark tent or cupboard, or letting them sit alone for just three minutes or for 20.

Sometimes they were asked to comment on how they were feeling while in the middle of the sessions, sometimes after they were completed. But in every case the participants said their enjoyment was greater than they had anticipated

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A test group of other participants were given access to digital devices, and allowed to read the news online. Initially the expectation had been that those given digital devices would enjoy the activity better, not least because those chosen to contemplate were less than enthusiastic to hear about what activity the “rival” group had been offered.

However, in the questionnaires that were subsequently completed both groups were found to have gained equal enjoyment from their activities.

“These results in the flood-of-information age we live in are of particular importance,” Murayama told German media.

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