In three different experiments, about 20 people completed the same free association task. (They had to quickly name the first thing that popped into their head after they heard a series of target words.) But in each experiment, the researchers manipulated the "cognitive load" of the participants with various additional tasks. For example, some people were asked to remember a string of two digits (a low cognitive load), while others had to alphabetize the first three letters of each target word (a high cognitive load).
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What the researchers found was that the participants with lower cognitive loads gave more creative responses. “When you reduce mental [stress], people have a greater tendency to avoid the ‘obvious solution’ and instead access unique thoughts in their mind,” study co-author and PhD student Shira Baror explained in an email to Health. In other words, when your brain is quieter, it can afford to "put aside its stored, immediate, well-earned associations and take a more interesting path of more original associations."
The study's findings are in line with prior research, says Jonathan Schooler, PhD, a professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In 2012 he led a study that showed the benefits of letting your mind slow down and wander: His team's work suggested that when you're trying to solve a problem, you may get the best creative boost from engaging in a non-demanding task. Think taking a shower, doing light chores—or you know, going for a good sweaty run.
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In fact, that's exactly what Baror suggests when you're stuck in a rut. "Ruminating on the same problem, especially when you're under stress or tension, will not yield creative solutions." Instead, she says, literally walk away, and give your mind the chance to make those seemingly random, unexpected turns that lead to breakthroughs.