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

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An academic study claims that losing yourself in one’s thoughts or letting one’s mind wander is an underestimated activity that the more practiced, the more beneficial it becomes.

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

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

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They say the series of experiments that culminated in their study show that people enjoy letting their mind wander once they have the opportunity to do so, although some still find it a strenuous activity.

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

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Despite this, most people are more likely to find themselves distracted than engrossed in their thoughts or looking out the window.

The authors theorize that smartphones have essentially made it easier to find distractions and have contributed to the loss of the habit of independent thinking. Some people find it difficult to spend time with their own thoughts, especially if they turn to negative thinking, he said.

Study leader, Kou Murayama, professor of educational psychology at the University of Tübingen, said people generally found it difficult to predict the extent to which contemplation was valuable; Rather, they found other activities to be more appealing—unless they were encouraged to let their mind wander.

“This may explain why people choose to enjoy a moment of reflection or engage in their daily lives rather than letting their imagination run away from themselves,” Murayama said.

The study, which involved 259 people, is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

In the experiments, participants were asked 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 smartphones, read or move around.

According to the results, each of them found more joy than they expected in letting their mind wander. This remained even when the conditions of the experiment were changed, including placing participants alone in a rare conference room, placing them in a dark tent or cupboard, or letting them sit alone for only three minutes or 20.

Sometimes they were asked to comment on how they were feeling after the session, sometimes in the middle of the session. But in each case the participants said that their enjoyment was greater than they expected.

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