At this time of year, many of us may find our thoughts turned inward, reflecting on what we have experienced and achieved in the past year, and our goals and aspirations for the upcoming year. This underscores an important distinction in our thinking between inner-directed attention, and outer-directed attention, and their interplay.
When our attention is directed externally, whether intentionally or not, we are responding to, and interpreting, stimuli or events outside of ourselves, with information coming in to us from the external world through our senses. When, though, our attention is directed internally, we draw on our own memory and knowledge, reliving past experiences, and imaginatively anticipating future events using what we already know.
In many situations, our internally directed cognition and our externally directed cognition compete with one another. Think of the times we may drift into reverie during a long talk or while overhearing an extended conversation—only to find ourselves unable to capture what was said just moments before. Or, conversely, think of what happens when we’re trying to recall an uncommon word or an unfamiliar name, and we might close our eyes or avert our glance, as we try to fully turn our attention inward and block out external distractions.
This competition is also often observed in brain imaging studies. An interconnected set of brain regions (often referred to as the “default mode network”) is strongly activated when we turn our attention inward. A different set is often activated (for example, in what has been called the “executive control network”) when we are purposefully responding to externally presented words, objects, or sounds. When activation in one set of brain regions goes up, activation in the other set goes down and vice versa.
But do internally directed and externally directed thinking always compete with each other? What would it mean for creativity and imagination if they could, instead, cooperate?
A growing number of studies show that during creative or imaginative activities, when we are partially thinking in spontaneous or automatic ways, there can be a more cooperative relationship between internal and external thinking.
What might this mean for our creative processes? During our creative endeavors, we need to exert some deliberate guidance, but not be too rigid and unrelenting a “controller,” weaving in with our guidance and goals, and then loosening control before we weave in again. In the longer-term, developing effortless ease in parts of our creative process may lead to conditions that promote even more discoveries because there’s a powerful blending of the spontaneous and the intended, and of our internally and our externally directed thinking.
—> For a recent and comprehensive review on the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition in the brain see:
Matthew L. Dixon, Kieran C.R. Fox, & Kalina Christoff (2014). A framework for understanding the relationship between externally and internally directed cognition. Neuropsychologia, 62, pp. 321-330.