The Virtue of Distraction

Marten Scheffer, professor and scientist with appointments in The Netherlands and Uruguay, has a brief, but thought provoking, essay in today’s edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (USA)on nurturing creative associations. Hopefully, you don’t have to subscribe to read it. Scheffer begins:

Although thinking is the core business of scientists, we rarely ponder how it thrives best; this is ironic, as there is abundant scientific insight to draw upon. For example, it is now known that thinking has two complementary modes: roughly, association versus reasoning (1). We systematically underestimate the role of the first (1), and the way our institutions, meetings, and teaching are organized heavily reflects this imbalance. By contrast, many of the greatest scientists systematically nurtured a balanced dual-thinking process. We should follow their example and reform scientific practice and education to catalyze the unusual combinations of knowledge that often turn out to have the highest impact.

How does Scheffer suggest we make progress toward more creative associations? Nap and goof around:

Recent experimental work confirms that our capacity to make novel associations is boosted by rapid eye-movement sleep (3) and by undemanding activities that allow the mind to wander (4). This finding suggests that it may be good in a daily routine to alternate our cognitive work with naps or activities conducive to mind wandering.

I’m in. In fact, I’ve been in for a long time.
Scheffer also suggests interdisciplinary pursuits (I’m there), walks (short ones I hope) and talks (with gluten free food and a tasty beverage):

The idea that taking walks, reading things unrelated to your research, and hanging out with strangers in a campus pub should be considered part of the serious process of thinking, but might well meet with skepticism in practice. Should we really set time and space apart for things that distract us from our jobs? Yes we should, because many of the breakthroughs in science were made by people who were distracted.

I knew there was virtue in distraction but now I can get busy being more distracted so I can finally get to the breakthroughs.
*Marten Scheffer, The forgotten half of scientific thinking. PNAS, April 29, 2014, vol. 111 no. 176119, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1404649111.