February in Portland is that awkward month between winter and spring when the daffodils are poking up green shoots but very little is blooming. The weather gives both glimpses of sun and plenty of clouds, rainy alternates with short dry spells. It’s a between time, a liminal zone between seasons, not really full winter and certainly not spring.
It’s easy in this grey zone to get a little down, longing for the warmth and beauty of spring. At the same time, these liminal zones can offer us a break between the incessant activities of our over scheduled lives. When the outside is grey, we may find our selves spending more time engaged in inner reflection and day-dreaming (and not just of warm, sunny places either.) In our results-driven world, efficiency obsessed world, we often chastise someone (or ourselves!) caught daydreaming as “wasting time,” yet this kind of Day dreaming is a source of creativity. Scott Barry Kaufman, a cognitive psychologist at NYU. Dr. Kaufman is author of the book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined and others, and the focus of his research is creativity.
How many of you have had the experience of having that aha! moment strike shortly after you turned your attention away from a problem you were trying to solve? And right before that, you might have been chiding yourself for day-dreaming when you should be working! It turns out that a few moments in the liminal zone between structured tasks is exactly what is needed for a creative thought to sneak through. Kaufman points out when we are working on a project or attempting to generate a new idea, we engage our working memory network, portions of the brain that help us access and use knowledge and experience that we already have. Which is fine, as long as the problem we’re trying to solve is one we’ve encountered before. If the problem is new or requires a novel approach, then our working memory network in combination with novel ideas or novel juxtapositions of things we already know is more likely to generate a new solution. The problem is that the part of our brain that day-dreams and puts things together in novel ways is the default network, portions of the brain that are active when we’re not particularly engaged in a task or focused on any particular thing, in other words, when we’re day-dreaming. These two networks are not active in the brain at the same time. So in order to access our creativity, sometimes it is helpful to take a break from problem solving, to take a walk, day-dream a little, to allow ourselves to enter the liminal zone between the structured tasks that cram our daily lives. In that space between, new ideas and creative possibilities can emerge.
Along with day-dreaming, play is a state that can help us transform difficult situations into opportunities or at least new possibilities. As science writer, Linda Stone, quoting play scholar, Brian Sutton-Smith ,”The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” Play also takes us into less structured or analytical areas of the mind. Play allows us to step out of our serious ego, the “I matter” place and into a place of discovery. In the liminal zone, between the “should” and the “oughts” of our normal roles in life is a place of discovery and self-expression that can allow us to access creativity, and more importantly, joy. So when those grey days come between February and March, and you find yourself day-dreaming over your cup of tea or coffee, even if those dreams are just of warmer days ahead, you’re allowing yourself needed time to recoup and reflect, to pause and access your creativity. You might find when you come back to that task, that you have a new idea or insight.