Creativity and The Default Network

Margaret Wente, a columnist for the Globe and Mail, recently wrote an article called "In Praise of the Wandering Mind" in which she criticizes society's "cult of productivity" and emphasizes the benefits of leisure, especially as it applies to creativity:  

"Researchers have learned that your brain is often at its best when your body is engaged in low-level, undemanding activity (like showering) and you’re not thinking about much of anything at all."

Neuroscience is providing a major paradigm shift, especially in the field of cognitive psychology - Freud  actually labeled daydreaming (a sub-category of mind wandering) "infantile and neurotic" and textbooks used to warn it could lead to psychosis

But over the last ten years, thanks to advances in functional imaging technologies, most scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity. Mind-wandering allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings - such as a church sermon or an office presentation - the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist.

Creative types often report that inspiration strikes when they "least expect it". Tom Waits famously says that melodies and song lyrics frequently "come to him" while he's driving on the freeway in L.A. 

How does this happen? 

Brain imaging shows us that when the brain is "at rest", a default network of cortical regions is activated. This default network is located in the anterior medial prefrontal cortex, which has a dense network of fiber connections. It's one of the most highly connected areas in the brain:  

Women have stronger connections in the network than men and the connections weaken with age. Brain-imaging studies involving babies suggest that newborns don't have a default mode network. But by two weeks, a primitive and incomplete version is up and running. 

In addition to default network activation, mind wandering is associated with "executive network recruitment". Evidence of interconnectedness between these two brain systems - which have so far been assumed to work in opposition - suggests that mind wandering may evoke a unique mental state that could allow otherwise opposing networks to work in cooperation.

Why low-demand situations provoke activity in the default network is still not understood:

"One possibility is that it enables individuals to maintain an optimal level of arousal, thereby facilitating performance on mundane tasks. A second possibility is that, as a kind of spontaneous mental time travel,it lends a sense of coherence to one’s past, present, and future experiences. Finally, the mind may wander simply because it evolved a general ability to divide attention and to manage concurrent mental tasks. Although the thoughts the mind produces when wandering are at times useful, such instances do not prove that that the mind wanders because these thoughts are adaptive; on the contrary the mind may wander simply because it can."

Artist Ryan Wallace curated a group show now on display on at the Morgan Lehman gallery in NYC which visualizes the default network in abstract paintings, figurative sculptures and photography. The work is aesthetically powerful and technically complex.