We should let our minds wander

Dr Greg Minissale's research suggests that taking time out to let our minds wander has real benefits.

Dr Greg Minissale poses in front of Lithic Link (1984) by Rob Taylor, from the University of Auckland Art Collection.

"Ever since I was small, I have been interested in both making art and viewing art. I still sketch, even now; and my experience as an artist informs my work as an art historian.

"These days my sketches are almost completely abstract. I use 'automatism' to make art that isn't premeditated. You have to relax your purposeful control and not push consciously for a particular image.

"Such mind wandering — for both art makers and art viewers — is a big focus of my research. People tend to think that all art work is the product of intentional thought but that's not the case. When you're daydreaming, funny things happen. Daydreams can include magic realism, imagination… things that you wouldn't normally tap into if you're reading a dishwasher manual. For artists, being relaxed can allow the remote associations to rise up and be fruitful. Yet mind-wandering is often seen as a shortcoming, as a lack of concentration. It's only recently that it's been discovered to be creative."

People tend to think that all art work is the product of intentional
thought but that’s not the case.

Dr Greg Minissale

"I'm working on a meta-analysis of mind-wandering, an analysis of everything that has been said about the topic as well as a highlighting of the gaps — what has not been looked at. I want to know whether any of this research — often psychology experiments — could help me as an art historian get more out of an artwork.

"Interactions between science and humanities interest me greatly. Whereas some researchers act as if humanities should be more like science — more 'objective', more 'one size fits all' — I'm interested in investigating scientific research that is useful to the humanities, and which acknowledges individuality and diversity."

Time out is not wasted time; it's quality time and time for reflection,
it allows us to be more balanced as human beings.

Dr Greg Minissale

"I’m leading an eye-tracking experiment to investigate whether viewing certain types of landscape art is measurably relaxing (the amount of cortisol in saliva is a proxy for stress levels).

"Earlier studies in eye-tracking compared the art-viewing of art 'experts'with the art-viewing of art 'novices' found that novices tended to ignore the same, common areas of the artwork. Also, the eyes of novices tended to move in little jumps, whereas the eyes of experienced art-viewers swept over the entire artwork before zeroing-in on particular areas. This allows them to see how the fine grain detail relates to the wider context.

"This is the type of scientific information that is potentially useful for humanities — a first eye sweep is not a 'one size fits all' approach for all artworks and all viewers, but it does suggest a way of viewing that new art viewers might like to try.

"Mind wandering isn't just about creativity and aesthetics. It's aligned to ethics, the way we live our lives. We find ourselves immersed in rhythms in life that are not of our own making and that are often designed to maximise profit: working five days a week for example, or watching fast-paced tv. The only way to counter those default rhythms is to take time to work out how you're processing things.

"Life is also about imagination, and you can only develop that by giving it time. Doing this has real benefits. Time out is not wasted time, it's quality time and time for reflection, it allows us to be more balanced as human beings. Slow cinema and slow art break up those imposed rhythms."