The ability to concentrate on a task is a prized skill—the secret to success, many claim. But recent research suggests that intense focus on a problem does not always usher the fastest progress or, at least, such focus is not always sufficient for the necessary brainstorm. Insights often occur subconsciously while the mind wanders, reports Josie Glausiusz in the March/April Scientific American MIND. Albert Einstein, for example, came up with his theory of relativity only after letting his thoughts stray from the mathematics itself.

Grand schemes can also coalesce out of the blue, when you are doing something that requires little concentration—leaving room for spacing out. Great thinkers such as the Greek mathematician Archimedes, physicist Leo Szilard, organic chemist August Kekulé and biochemist Kary Mullis came up some of their key revelations while engaging in a mundane activity such as walking, driving or bathing. In other words, taking a break can sometimes give you that big break.

Mental diversions are sometimes in the form of detailed fantasies. Devout daydreamers may take refuge in imaginary worlds for hours to days. Frittering the day away in such settings might seem frivolous, but in some cases the practice spawns great works of art. The famous books penned by the Brontë sisters grew out of their persistent pretending as children, and Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk depends on such distraction to furnish fodder for his novels. The slides that follow describe the reveries and fantasies that led to the scientific and creative insights of these great thinkers and writers.

Learn more about the 7 Great Achievements in this slide show