Associative Thinking, Daydreaming, and Self-Reflection Key To Creativity, Study Reveals

A recent study on 138 undergraduate students investigated the relationship between creativity and different aspects of thought patterns presumed to influence the preparation and illumination phase of the creative process.

Aspects of thought patterns they studied included:

  • How much one relied on habitual patterns of thought, such as ruminative brooding and/or ruminative self-reflection.
  • Whether one suppressed thoughts or welcomed them.
  • How much one engaged in mind wandering.
  • The person’s ability to use associative thinking.

Associative thinking occurs when all avenues are open in your brain and your mind, and you allow your mind to “free associate,” or automatically link up ideas, thoughts, observations, sensory input, memory of existing knowledge, and your subconscious. Rather than relying solely on what you know or have observed in relation to what you are focused on, you allow any and all thoughts to arise, which helps your brain’s neurons to spark and connect in unique ways. Creative ability, they found, was fueled mainly by the person’s associative ability.

The results also suggested that what drives the need to create is not creative ability per se, but rather a tendency toward self-reflective pondering and the ability and penchant for letting your mind wander (daydreaming, as an example), in which all thoughts are welcome.

Creative types were more likely to keep an open mind while pondering and were more likely to welcome what others might well view as intrusive thoughts, whereas ruminative brooders tended to restrict thoughts and suppress intrusive thoughts. In fact, the only variable that seemed to influence both aspects of creativity they studied (preparation and illumination) was the students’ lack of resistance to thought suppression. In other words, the more creative students excelled at associative thinking and tended to welcome all thoughts, which is why the more creative students likely reported a feeling or experience of being found by thought, rather than finding it.

Researchers concluded that the need to create is associated with having thoughts that interrupt one’s ordinary stream of consciousness and that are seen as welcome rather than interfering.

What this means for someone who wishes to be more creative is that self-reflection or pondering is productive, while brooding, or negatively ruminating, likely stifles creativity. It also indicates that keeping an open mind while pondering or thinking and allowing thoughts to pop in whenever they arrive is productive, while suppressing thoughts or holding to a narrow train of thought would likely be unproductive.

Thus, it also holds to reason that doing these 5 things will bolster your creativity:

  1. Broadening your perspective by reading widely
  2. Embracing curiosity and welcoming new experiences
  3. Becoming a better observer and using a journal to record them
  4. Pondering new information and linking it with existing knowledge
  5. Learning to welcome all thoughts during daydreaming or meditation

The more you feed your mind, the more thoughts it will have to associate.

And best of all, this study indicates that daydreaming and other forms of mind wandering foster creativity. So spend a little time each day allowing your mind to wander, and when you ponder, do so in a reflective manner, keeping an open mind and allowing all thoughts to surface. Then, whenever you feel the need or urge to be creative, embrace the fine art of free association.

This is the second in a series on creativity. The next post will address specific ways of thinking that can bolster creativity.


[1]“On Being Found: How Habitual Patterns of Thought Influence Creative Interest, Behavior, and Ability”Verhaeghen, Paul; Trani, Alexandra N.; Aikman, Shelley N. Creativity Research Journal, v29 n1 p1-9 2017


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