Perceptually decoupled thought is linked to creativity and delaying gratification.
In a couple of papers published over the last few months my co-authors and I have demonstrated that the capacity to disengage attention from an easy task is associated with two of the most important human skills: the capacity to solve problems in a creative fashion and the ability to delay gratification. In one study, conducted in collaboration with Ben Baird, Jonathan Schooler and others we examined how the state of perceptual decoupling was associated with making progress on a problem (http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2012/08/31/0956797612446024.abstract ). Participants were given a number of everyday objects (such as a brick) and were asked to generate as many uses for them as possible. After doing this task for a few minutes, participants were allocated to one of several conditions: a ten minute rest break, a ten minute working memory task, or an easy choice reaction time task with the same duration. A fourth group simply moved onto the next phase of the experiment. Next participants were asked to go back to the same creativity problems as well as to solve another set of matched problems. The results suggested that daydreamers in general performed better on the creativity problems. In addition, those participants who performed the choice reaction time task generated more creative solutions to the old problems. As we already know that perceptual decoupling is taking place during the choice reaction time task (http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0018298e) this result suggests that disengaging from the external environment may be important in pursuing a line of thought that is creative.
In a second study, conducted with one of my graduate students Florence Ruby, as well as Professor Tania Singer from the Max Planck Institute, Leipzig, we examined how the same state of mental disengagement in the same tasks is linked to our capacity to delay gratification (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053810012002097). Being able to delay gratification reflects our capacity to refrain from accepting a smaller reward in the present in favor of gaining a larger reward in the future. Delaying gratification is important in skills like saving and dieting and so not surprisingly people who are better at this task are often the same as those who do well at school, maintain a healthy diet and have better credit ratings. In this study, participants performed both the easy and the hard tasks used in the creativity study and we measured an individuals tendency to delay gratification in a common economic decision-making paradigm. Results demonstrated that participants who generated more task unrelated thoughts in the easy task made more patient temporal choices. Engaging in task unrelated thought in the hard task was not related to delay gratification. This result suggests that the ability to decouple attention from perception when external tasks are not especially demanding is a characteristic of individuals have who tend to make decisions that benefit them over the long run and so avoid making rash choices.
The capacity to be creative and to make decisions that are beneficial over long time frames are two of the most important skills that we as a species possess. Together they allow us to generate novel solutions to problems and to have the presence of mind to make sure that we stick to these plans for long enough to ensure that we achieve our goals. Our research is demonstrating that both of these skills are related to our ability to decouple attention from external information and focus on self-generated thoughts and feelings when the environment is not demanding. Rather than being an absent minded lapse or a moment of idle fancy, it seems that the capacity to disengage from the outside world when the external environment is sufficiently benign reflects a skillset that is important to almost every human endeavor.