Doing Nothing: The Taoist and Scientific Way of Generating Creativity

                                                               Great book 

There’s a peculiar effect that I’ve observed in my attempts to embrace wu-wei this month: I have more creative insights. They tend to happen when I’m not doing anything in particular. At work, it is during my afternoon coffee breaks. At home, it’s in the shower or right before or after a nap. They also occur during my solo nature walks.

For example, I’ve been drafting a pitch for an article I want to write for a magazine, and someone gave me feedback and suggested I include some scientific research to support my ancient wisdom arguments. This stressed me out for a bit as I was a bit rusty on doing any scientific research.

My first attempts at finding relevant research failed. However, instead of continuing to keep digging until I found something, I decided to just wait as part of a Taoist experiment.

It was during my idle times that my brain naturally gravitated back towards the article. After a few sessions of thinking about the article, I suddenly remembered a few books I read and a few famous scientific experiments that could potentially work. Once I got back to a computer, I looked through the books and research and voila, they fit. I still have one more point I’d like to support with research, but 2 out of 3 isn’t bad!

Now, if I had tried to force this type of thinking and research according to my original schedule (I gave myself an initial deadline of one week), I would have failed. Or, likely, I might have succeeded but been much more stressed about it.

Andrew Smart, in the excellent short book, Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, describes a curious result in a neuroscience experiment. Participants were hooked up to an fMRI machine which monitored brain activity. The neuroscientist Marcus Raichle noticed that whenever the participants were asked to complete a specific task, a large part of the brain network seemed to “deactivate.” When the participants were not completing a task, the network became active again.

What all this means is that as you lie there letting your mind wander— or in the awkward language of neuroscientific writing, having Stimulus Independent Thoughts— your brain becomes more organized than if you are trying to concentrate on some task like color coding your Outlook calendar. Thus, when you space out, information begins to flow between the nodes in the default mode network. The activity in these regions and in the network as a whole increases. 

The implication is that something important happens when we’re not focused on a task. When we’re not doing something, our brains are doing quite a bit. Smart argues that this brain activity is critical to generating creativity.

The important thing is that during rest, the default mode network can open connections between brain regions that are normally too busy trying to keep up with your activity-filled life to talk to each other. This is when true creativity and insight can happen… We categorize adults who sit in contemplative moods as flakey, spacey, or lazy. But for your brain to do its best work, you need to be idle. If you want to have great ideas or if you just want to get know yourself, you must stop managing your time. At the very least, modern neuroscience is rapidly amassing more and more evidence that the resting state of the brain is vital to its health.  

What we know through science, the Taoists knew intuitively, that doing nothing is often the best thing we can do. By balancing action with long or frequent periods of inaction, much is achieved.

Therefore the sage goes about doing nothing, teaching no-talking.

The ten thousand things rise and fall without cease,

Creating, yet not possessing.

Working, yet not taking credit.

Work is done, then forgotten.

Therefore it lasts forever.

Chapter 2, Tao Te Ching

Now I must go to work to pitch a plan to get the workforce to do nothing. I assume this won’t go well.

  • MarcHamann

    Reminds me of a quote attributed to Einstein:
    “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.”

    • I like that. I imagine though true creativity has to happen after some hard work….especially Einstein.

      • MarcHamann

        I think the essence of the quote is for people who already work hard, but sometimes feel that they should be working harder. Once you have made the appropriate efforts, and have started hitting brick walls, “wasting time” becomes essential for the creative breakthrough.
        I think that Taoism is more useful for people who try to control too much, and need to be reminded to let go now and again, rather than as a manifesto for natural slackers.

        • I agree with you.

  • Magicub

    Are you feeling any guilt for “doing nothing”?

    • A little bit on personal projects (including this blog)…at work, not so much.