Trying hard to solve that impossible problem? Hit the topless bar, take a warm shower, and sleep on it.
Three tips I gathered from Jonah Lehrer‘s great article in the July 28th New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunt,” all about “insight,” where our good ideas come from, when they come to us, and why.
total immersion ? relaxing distraction = moment of insight
The insight process…is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-Beeman said, “The problem with the morning, though, is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.” He recommends that if we’re stuck on a difficult problem, it’s better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking while we’re still half asleep.
The mathematician Henri Poincaré had his “seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry…while he was boarding a bus.”
Poincaré insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good has been accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey”. The answer will arrive when you least expect it.
And let’s not forget Richard Feynman:
the Nobel Prize winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.
The good stuff comes along when you’re not forcing it—what Lynda Barry and Donald Barthelme call “not-knowing.”
My “Eureka!” moments always come to me in the shower, which is why I keep a dry-erase marker in the bathroom.
When do y’all get your best ideas?
Pete Nicely says
In your shower as well. Sorry about the water on the floor.
All of my best ideas for paintings have come during really boring meetings. I don’t even space out during meetings, but the atmosphere is so different from sitting at my desk, trying to work out an idea.
Mark Larson says
For me it’s usually when I’m running or hiking. Something about the combination of solitude, repetitive motion, an exercise high, and having a big block of time that let the everyday drudgery thoughts get processed and out of the way. Then the good stuff comes.
The other great time is when I’m just waking up or just getting sleepy, assuming I have the presence of mind to record it.
Earlier this year I was reading a lot about string theory and quantum mechanics and basically I was having a peak experience where it all started coming together for me really quickly. Riding the train to work in the morning, stoned, was where I had a couple breakthroughs. I would be reading an unrelated book, and then staring out the window or at passengers on the train and BAM—breakthrough. It was an amazing thing. Also, just walking down the street. I was compacting all this info in my brain, but it was when I was in the shower or walking or on the train that concepts really started to solidify for me.
There’s a technique called scrying that tends to work (staring into a fire, or into a crystal ball if that’s your thing)—-kinda like meditation.
Annie in Austin says
It’s the shower for me, too, Austin Kleon – that’s where I write most of my songs.
My suspicion had been that it was a result of living in the allergy capital of the country, because the only time my sinuses are clear is either in the shower or when eating hot salsa made by my husband. Both those things are relaxing elements so maybe they fit into the insight theory.
Annie at the Transplantable Rose
Austin Kleon says
Cat: I doodle during meetings and definitely always come up with something different, if not great…
April, you’re not alone: 5 Greatest Things Accomplished While High
Mark: my wife and I work a bunch of stuff out on our walks
Annie: that’s interesting about the sinuses…reminds me of this NYTimes article about Olafaction
Justin Kownacki says
Often while driving. Also, when I had a day job, I’d frequently get a moment of clarity during restroom breaks. If my coworkers wondered why I seemed to have the bladder of a gerbil, it’s because I was keeping my inspiration in there…
Austin Kleon says
Ah yes. The toilet is private and relaxing, therefore, a great place to have some good thoughts…
Tape recorder for the car, pocket notepad for the w/c.
Peaking on acid.
the insight process needs distraction..and it seems to come only when we are not actively thinking about the problem.it may come to us in very weird situations like while looking out of a runnin train,starng at your drink in a party and of course in the shower!!