Aha experiences aren’t as serendipitous as you may think. Here’s how to proactively produce them.
It’s the third century, B.C., and the King of Syracuse is suspicious. He has commissioned a new gold crown. But upon receiving the crown from his goldsmith, the king believes the item has been adulterated with silver. He asks his great scientist Archimedes to verify the crown’s purity.
At first, Archimedes is well and truly stumped. But then, as he slips into his bathtub and sees the water level rise, he realizes that he can use displaced water to assess the crown’s density and, therefore, its gold content. Archimedes leaps from the tub and runs naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” which roughly translates to “I’ve got it!”
While its authenticity is debated, the story of Archimedes and the gold crown is still one of the most famous tales of scientific discovery. Researchers who study the process of creative breakthroughs, also referred to as “aha” or “eureka” moments, say Archimedes’ experience can offer valuable lessons to anyone who could use a little creative inspiration.
“When you’re completely stuck on a problem, setting it aside can lead to new ideas or even flashes of insight,” says Mark Beeman, chair of psychology at Northwestern University and author of The Eureka Factor, a book that examines how the human brain tackles tricky problems and comes up with creative solutions.
Beeman says so-called eureka moments may seem unpredictable and unreplicable. But there are ways to coax these inspired ideas from their hiding places. One of the best is to take a break from thinking about a problem or dilemma. “When you step away from a problem” — meaning you focus your attention on something else — “what happens is something people call incubation,” he says.
There are several theories for what’s going on during this incubation period, all of which may be true. “The first is that if you initially approach a problem the wrong way, the more you stick with it or focus in on it, the more you’re actually suppressing other ideas,” Beeman explains. Basically, your mind gets stuck in a rut; setting the problem aside for a while helps free your brain to explore new roads.
“The second idea,” Beeman says, “is that when you take a break, you might get a hint from your environment.” Archimedes and his bathtub is a good example; seeing the water level rise triggered his epiphany.
“The third idea, which everybody believes but is hard to prove, is that there’s some kind of process in the mind where you’re still occasionally mulling the problem at an unconscious level, and in doing so you come up with the solution,” Beeman says. The human brain seems to be capable of both direct and indirect attention, he says. And when it’s stuck on a problem, indirect attention — which may even persist to some extent during sleep — can yield novel insights.
While it’s unclear exactly how this incubation period works its magic, Beeman says there are several steps you can take to raise the odds that incubation will be fruitful. First of all, you need to thoroughly dissect a problem and work through all the obvious solutions. “You need this first stage where you’re really analyzing a problem and bringing it into focus internally,” he says.
Once you’ve done that work and are ready to incubate, it’s helpful to engage in tasks that allow your mind time and space to wander without distraction. A 2019 study titled “When the Muses Strike” found that, among physicists and writers, creative insights often arrived while they exercised, showered, gardened, or engaged in other predominantly physical activities that gave their minds the freedom to roam.
“Engaging in nondemanding tasks seems to foster productive mind-wandering, which can lead to these aha experiences,” says Jonathan Schooler, first author of the study and a professor of psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara.
Schooler points out that mind-wandering is a universal human activity. So, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that it would serve an important function; if it didn’t, the human brain wouldn’t do it. There are countless anecdotes about great thinkers and inventors who recognized the importance of taking breaks to ponder a problem or simply daydream. Both Einstein and Darwin prioritized long daily strolls.
Schooler’s research defines mind-wandering as any activity that allows “having task-independent thoughts.” Beeman says activities that are too demanding of our brain or attention — checking email, reading the news, watching TV, listening to podcasts, texting a friend, etc. — tend to stifle the kind of background thinking or mind-wandering that leads to creative inspiration. On the other hand, a positive mood seems to be helpful. Anger, anxiety, and other negative emotions breed rumination or problem-fixation, which can suppress the kind of mind-wandering that produces creative insights, he says.
There’s evidence that spending just five minutes outdoors and in nature is enough to boost a person’s mood. Taking a quiet walk through a park or the woods may be just the type of pleasant, mildly diverting activity that both improves your mood and stimulates helpful mind-wandering. Schooler says doing the dishes or other household chores could also help a person hit the mind-wandering sweet spot.
“But try not to do it with an agenda,” he says. Creativity is closely related to play, Schooler says, and if a person is approaching this whole enterprise with the express goal of producing creative breakthroughs, that objective may interfere with the mind’s ability to perform its special alchemy. “Lighten up and let your mind roam,” he says.
This story was written by Markham Heid and originally appeared here: https://elemental.medium.com/the-science-behind-eureka-moments-6729e3ce4de7