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Spontaneous Thought is to Genetic Mutation as Learning is to Evolution

kgould's picture

Spontaneous Thought is to Genetic Mutation as Learning is to Evolution


Spontaneity in the Classroom:

Sit back and recall your days in an elementary school classroom. There was an array of different types of students: the quiet and the loud, the motionless and the energetic, and those that fell everywhere in between. It was useful during discussion periods, like when acting out “The Three Little Pigs” or talking about how volcanoes work, to have classmates interject with spontaneous ideas and thoughts that would get the conversation moving in a different, but useful, direction.

On that same train of thought, too much spontaneity could be distracting and it could even get you put in the hallway or sent to the principal—if you couldn’t focus on the goal of the activity or were bothersome to your classmates.


And spontaneity was not just a role for students—there was nothing better than a teacher randomly deciding to deviate from the pre-planned, cookie cutter assignment that every other classroom was doing, and instead going outside to observe nature, or having free time to read or write or draw. The students weren’t allowed to run around or goof off, but they were given a little more independence and the room to daydream or think outside of what was expected. As a result, students often seemed more engaged in activities later, excited and focused. (Why do you think kids need recess?)


Brainstorming, or braindraining, was another activity that engaged spontaneity and stream of consciousness thinking. Asked to call out ideas for a problem or to throw out free associations to a word or image, a classroom could rapidly propagate new ideas and solutions to use constructively.


And that’s an important part of spontaneity in the classroom.

There is a very marked difference between a little bit of mind wandering and a classroom full of uncontrolled, absentminded children.

Beyond directing thought towards a curriculum goal, controlling students’ daydreaming often came down to the difference between a manageable classroom and a room full of hyperactive 2nd graders.


That said, as we’ll see, there are a lot of benefits and advantages to engaging in spontaneous thought.


Spontaneity in the Brain:

A lot of teachers and professors instruct their students to reflect on or journal their thoughts concerning a particular lesson—as we often do on Serendip after class. Coming from a high school where reflecting always seemed like busywork, one might be disinclined to really engage in thinking about what one was taught. But this is in error, at least according to “The role of spontaneous thought in human cognition” (Christoff et al). Thinking about what one has done, daydreaming or “mind-wandering” can actually help with recall. Reflection helps consolidate and solidify information because of the way that the brain functions while not focusing on a task at hand. When individuals are asked to “rest” and “do nothing,” more areas of the temporal lobe region, like the hippocampus, are recruited. The temporal lobes are related to long-term memory phenomena, episodic and semantic memory, and their recruitment during rest reflects spontaneous memory retrieval and encoding. Basically, the more you let your mind wander, the more your brain spontaneously records and converts memories of what you have done or experienced.


Christoff et al. suggests a continuum of types of thought: on one end, spontaneous thought and, at the other, goal-directed thought. Spontaneous thought generally involves the medial prefrontal cortex as well as the temporal lobes of the brain, whereas goal-directed thought involves the region known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. Interestingly, it has been shown in jazz musicians that, during improvisation, the medial prefrontal cortex shows increased activity (spontaneous thought) while the dorsolateral region shows less activity and is in some ways inhibited (goal-oriented and planned thought) (Johns Hopkins).


And while it might seem easy to align individuals with one type of thought as opposed to the other, it is more likely that good learners engage in both goal-directed and spontaneous thought, convergent and divergent thinking, since lots of idea-forming exercises (like brainstorming as many different uses for a brick as possible) involve not only idea generation (spontaneous) but evaluative functions (goal-directed) that determine the appropriateness and novelty of each idea. This would involve a cycling between the two types of thought, or a sliding along the continuum, which involves more prefrontal cortex recruitment.


Likewise, creative thought that involves less prefrontal recruitment includes “flow experience,” which is characterized by the performance of a task seemingly without effort but to the best of one’s ability (Christoff et al. 11). This still involves, at least at the end, some engagement with goal-oriented thinking: first, a generative stage relying on the generation of novelty and access to remote semantic associations, (linked to “default” and memory regions); and second, evaluative aspects—essentially, generating ideas and applying them to a problem or task.


The Upsides:

Spontaneous thought has been shown to have a number of cognitive benefits, ranging from improved relational memory to broadening and enriching the outcome of the thinking process. Insight is considered to occur spontaneously following a period of off-line processing, or mind wandering, and the frequency of daydreaming has been correlated with a subject’s creativity (Christoff et al. 21).


Similarly, mind wandering and spontaneous thought has been shown to be an effective form of emotional regulation: subjects insulted by an experimenter and then allowed to fantasize reported lower anger levels than subjects insulted but not allowed to fantasize. It’s the “count to ten” rule, where one waits before reacting to a situation.


Spontaneous thought also aids most dramatically in complex decision-making. Creative, divergent thinking allows us to draw connections between memories and concepts, broadens attentional focus to include larger amount of information, and processes the assigning of motivation value to experiences (Christoff et al. 26).


Spontaneous thought is not only a good thing, but a very necessary thing, giving us a sense of self. The integration of isolated episodic memory helps create a cohesive autobiographical narrative, our storyteller, making sense of our experiences.


The Downsides:

There is a point where spontaneity stops being productive or useful in a classroom and crosses over to being disruptive. Likewise, there is a level in which spontaneity in the brain is, at best, distracting and, at worst, debilitating. While Christoff et al. extols the benefits of mind-wandering “despite its reputation for uselessness,” daydreaming and other creative, spontaneous thought processes are ineffective without goal-oriented thinking to direct them to a problem. What is the point of generating ideas if they are not applied? It’s like spinning one’s wheels without getting anywhere—but that doesn’t mean that the movement of ideas has to be directed or have a specific destination in mind. Rather, simply applying these spontaneous and creative thoughts to problems will create a path for thought to continue moving.


Think of it in terms of mutation and evolution.

Spontaneous thought is analogous to genetic mutation. It could be good and it could be bad. Too many mutations can stop an organism from functioning efficiently. Not enough mutations keep it stagnant and can keep the organism from adapting effectively. But useful mutations that allow the organism to adapt to its environment in new and practical ways are more than “good,” they are necessary for survival.

Likewise, spontaneous thought—in the brain or in the classroom—is necessary for new ideas and new directions. But too much or too little is detrimental to the functioning or adaption of a learner or of a classroom environment.

Remember that kid who was always in his own world? Too much daydreaming = bad.

Or how about that kid who could only give the answer out of the textbook and couldn’t say anything original? Not enough daydreaming = bad.


And evolution is not directed. It does not have a destination in mind. It just builds on adaption after adaption, moving but never with a perceptible target.

It might be more problematic in a classroom, with curriculum guidelines and standardized tests, but at least on the individual learner level, one can make “progress” through the cycling of spontaneous and goal-directed thought without being told what or how to think.



Christoff et al. "The role of spontaneous thought in human cognition." To appear in: Neuroscience of Decision Making

Johns Hopkins. "This is Your Brain on Jazz: Researchers Use MRI to Study Spontaneity, Creativity."



Paul Grobstein's picture

parallels between thinking and evolution

Interesting parallel indeed, undirected thought with mutation and goal-directed thought with selection.  Would be worth exploring futher.  How "random" is undirected thought?