When do the best ideas come to us?

A brilliant inspiration needs a bit of preparation. But the flash of inspiration often strikes only when we let our souls dangle.

Joanne K. Rowling was sitting on the train from Manchester to London when the idea for a book about a young wizard with a scar on his forehead came to her. Her Harry Potter novels were later translated into 80 languages and sold more than 500 million copies, the film adaptations of the material brought in seven billion U.S. dollars at the box office, and there is now even a Harry Potter theme park. The fact that the muse kissed the writer on a train ride, of all places, was probably no coincidence.

The best ideas always come to us when we switch to mental idle. This daydream mode is particularly likely to occur when we’re not occupied with anything in particular, such as simply staring out of the window on long journeys. If Rowling had used the two and a half hours to do her tax return instead – perhaps she would have been denied her breakthrough.

Daydreams are by no means mental mishaps. In contrast to destructive brooding, they are often rather pictorial, provide good feelings and prepare the ground for creative ideas. In fact, to perform at its best, our soul needs this relaxed standby; indeed, drifting off is our brain’s default setting. Whenever we absent-mindedly daydream, a widely ramified network of brain regions becomes active, the so-called resting-state network. But the name is deceptive, because things are by no means quiet in the thinking organ. Parts of the brain are even more active than in moments when we are thinking purposefully, for example the precuneus, which is involved in visual imagination, or the medial prefrontal cortex, which we use to remember past events and make plans for the future. This explains why we are particularly good at reconnecting old knowledge in daydream mode – a core feature of creative performance.

When we think hard, it seems that we sometimes reach an impasse

Flashes of inspiration often strike by the way. Have you ever racked your brain for hours without success, only to be overcome by the decisive insight later while doing the dishes? Then you are not alone. Psychologists from the University of California in Santa Barbara asked physicists and screenwriters when they get the best ideas. The researchers chose these two professions because their representatives need to get creative in different ways: A physicist often looks for a specific solution to a mathematical problem, to which several paths lead. A screenwriter, on the other hand, does not yet have a clear goal in mind for her creative task. The participants were now asked to keep a record of their best idea of the day for several weeks and to indicate the situation in which it had revealed itself to them.

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The result of the study, published in 2019, was that most ideas came to them during their active working hours. However, the ideas they had while their minds were wandering – or devoted to something else entirely – were more resounding. Both the authors and the female physicists described them more often as “aha” moments. Why is that? When we think hard, we apparently sometimes get ourselves into a dead end from which we can no longer get out.

The knot is more likely to break in moments when we let our minds wander again, watch the rain with a cup of tea in our hands, or sit on the sofa and knit. Unconscious processes continue to run in the background, information and intuition mix until the finished idea suddenly makes its way into consciousness.

Even though pauses are an integral part of any creative process and there are many myths surrounding creative power: creativity rarely comes out of nowhere. Many people underestimate how much planning, expertise and hard work go into truly great ideas. Even the most creative minds have to put in years of hard work before they achieve genius. One example: In 2007, two U.S. psychologists analyzed the careers of 215 contemporary novelists, including Stephen King and Joyce Carol Oates. They found that an average of 10.6 years had passed between their first publication and the appearance of their masterpiece.

According to the study, we are most likely to achieve a creative breakthrough if we brood over a problem thoroughly for a long time and then consciously put it aside – go for a walk around the block or take a bath. Legend has it that the Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 B.C.) came up with the solution to his riddle in the bathtub after puzzling over it for days. “Eureka!” (“I have found it!”), he is said to have shouted at the moment of enlightenment, which is why we still use the expression today for spontaneous ideas. At the time, King Hieron II wanted to know if his new crown was made of pure gold, and Archimedes had been commissioned to test its authenticity without destroying the crown. While bathing, according to the famous tradition, he realized that the volume of a body can be determined on the basis of the amount of water displaced. As his subsequent experiment showed, the royal headdress allowed more water to overflow than a piece of pure gold of equal weight. The density of the crown was therefore lower – it had to be a cheap alloy. Thus, the goldsmith could be convicted of fraud.

New associations emerge during REM sleep

And there’s another great thinker we can learn from when we’re stuck in a creative slump. Pharmacologist Otto Loewi (1873-1961) came up with his epoch-making idea while asleep. On the night of Easter Sunday in 1920, he woke up, turned on the light and made a few notes on a small piece of paper. Although he could no longer decipher his scribble the next morning, fortunately the flash of inspiration struck him again the following night. This time he got up immediately, went to his laboratory and began experimenting. It was going to pay off: Using a frog’s heart, he demonstrated the chemical transmission of nerve signals for the first time and won the Nobel Prize.

Creativity researchers also have an explanation for such nocturnal aha experiences. In REM sleep (rapid eye movements), the sleep phase in which we have the most vivid dreams, the connection between the brain regions for logic and memory is weakened. This allows the brain to reshuffle the cards: Concepts are suddenly associated with others that at first glance have nothing to do with each other. It is not uncommon for valuable associations to arise in this way. We then wake up in the middle of a dream – or not until the next morning – with an innovative idea that we couldn’t see the day before.

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