By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
In the law, the ability to mentally focus is prized. We expect it of our partners and advocates, look for it in selecting our teams, and encourage our jurors to practice it. Following the story, understanding the details, comprehending the legal standards, all of that can require mental concentration. At the same time, part of law and legal persuasion requires a creative spark. Slogging through a deposition or sifting through the case law might be just a matter of putting in the time, but ginning up a good trial theme, creating a good metaphor, or trying to craft an answer to a strategic problem that has been eluding you up to now, that is creative work. And one thing we know about creative work is that sometimes you cannot just will yourself to an answer. Authors call it "writers block," and anyone else who works with words for a living -- humble bloggers for example -- can tell you that you can't just force an answer in a set amount of time.
And that points out where a lack of focus might be just what you need. Recent research is contributing to the view that unfocused states -- sometimes called "day dreaming" or "mind wandering," isn't wasted time. Instead, it is a precious opportunity for your brain to break out of the systems, patterns, and routines that it applies when it is working more conventionally. That loss of focus, or perhaps softer focus, can give rise to the kind of unexpected ideas that just might be a breakthrough. But not all mind wandering is of equal value. Instead, the act of intentionally wandering, though it might sound like a contradiction, tends to be more creative. Recent research (Golchert et al., 2017) suggests that something different is going on in the cranium of those who decide that they're just going to let their brains ruminate in an unstructured way on an idea. Specifically, people who intentionally engage in mind wandering have a thicker cortex in a prefrontal area of the brain, but for those who report spontaneous or uncontrolled mind wandering, that same area is thinner. "Mind wandering is not always a failure of self-control that is inevitably linked to mistakes. "The key is whether the mind wandering is intentional or not," the study's first author, Johannes Golchert, notes, “Mind wandering should not just be considered as something disturbing. If you’re able to control it to some extent, that is to say, suppress it when necessary and to let it run free when possible, then you can make the most of it.” In this post, I will share a bit of my experience, as someone who works on the creative end of legal persuasion, on some of the ways to make the most of mind wandering.