Ever wonder why our best ideas come when we’re in the shower, driving, daydreaming, or sleeping? Most people know the story of Archimedes’ shouting “Eureka!” upon suddenly discovering volume displacement while taking a bath and of Einstein’s theory of special relativity coming to him in a daydream. But there are many others:
Friedrich von Stradonitz’s discovered the round shape of the benzene ring after dreaming about a snake biting its tail.
Philo Farnsworth was plowing a field gazing at the even rows when the idea for projecting moving images line by line came to him, leading him to invent the first electronic television.
Richard Feynman was watching someone throw a plate in the air in Cornell University’s cafeteria when the wobbling plate with its red school medallion spinning sparked the Nobel Prize-winning idea for quantum electrodynamics.
Kary Mullis, another Nobel winner, was driving along a California highway when the chemistry behind the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) came to him, stopping him in the middle of the road.
Car designer Irwin Liu sketched the innovative new lines of what became the shape of the first Toyota Prius after helping his child with an elementary school science project involving the manipulation of hard-boiled eggs.
Author J. K. Rowling was traveling on a train between Manchester and London, thinking about the plot of an adult novel, when the character of child wizard Harry Potter flashed in her mind.
Shell Oil engineer Jaap Van Ballegooijen’s idea for a snake oil drill came as he watched his son turn his bendy straw upside down to better sip around the sides and bottom of his malt glass.
When you look deeper into these ingeniously elegant solutions and brilliant flashes of insight you can see that they came at strange times and in random locations. They didn't occur while actually working on the problem but after an intense, prolonged struggle with it followed by a break. A change of scene and time away seems to have played a part.
Most "creatives"—artists, musicians, writers, etc.—instinctively know that idea incubation involves seemingly unproductive times, but that those downtimes and timeouts are important ingredients of immensely productive and creative periods. But until fairly recently the how, when, and why of being kissed by the muse was something of a myth and mystery, explained only by serendipity.
But now there’s some hard science that shows it’s not just coincidence.
Neuroscientists examining how the human brain solves problems can confirm that experiencing a creative insight—that sudden aha!—hinges on the ability to synthesize connections between seemingly disparate things. And a key factor in achieving that is time away from the problem. New studies show that creative revelations tend to come when the mind is engaged in an activity unrelated to the issue at hand; pressure is not conducive to recombining knowledge in new and different ways, the defining mark of creativity.
Neuroendocrinologist Ullrich Wagner has demonstrated that the ultimate break—sleep—actually promotes the likelihood of eureka! moments. He gave volunteers a Mensa-style logic problem to solve, one containing a hidden rule enabling the solution. The subjects were allowed to work on it for a while, then told to take a break. Some took naps, some didn’t. Upon returning to the experiment to continue working on the problem, those who had taken a nap found the hidden rule quicker and much more often than those who hadn’t.
Wagner believes that information is consolidated by a process taking place in the hippocampus during sleep, enabling the brain to clear itself and, in effect, reboot, all the while forming new connections and associations. It is this process that is the foundation for creativity. The result is new insight and the aha! feeling of the eureka! moment.
While no one yet knows the exact process, there’s an important implication for all of us: putting pressure on ourselves to try and make our brains work harder, more intensely, or more quickly, may only slow down our ability to arrive at new insights. In other words, if you’re looking to engineer a breakthrough, it may only come through a break. Your brain needs the calm before its storm.
Matthew E. May is the author of In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing, and blogs here. You can follow him on Twitter here.