Where do big ideas come from?

We're moving into an era in which we'll understand how to induce creativity.

Portrait of Mozart, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce, c. 1780

A funny thing happened one day at an ancient Greek bath. The mathematician Archimedes realized he could measure an object's density by comparing its weight to the volume of water it displaced. So what did he do? He ran home naked screaming "Eureka!" or "I have found it!"


Ever since this event, we have been calling the act of spontaneous comprehension the "Eureka effect," or "Aha! moments." Scientists have used brain imaging experiments to try to locate where the Ahas! come from. While our understanding of creativity is indeed primitive, the more we know about the way the mind operates the better we can be at cultivating creative habits of mind.

For instance, we know there is something significant about the fact that Archimedes was taking a bath, and not hard at work when his creative insight occurred. Eric Kandel, author of The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and Brain, points to the work of the psychologist Jonathan Schooler, who has studied the history of "letting the mind wander." Schooler argues that big ideas "seem to come not when people are hard at work on a problem, but when they are sidetracked: going for a walk, taking a shower, thinking about something else."

In other words, much of our mental life is unconscious and that is where a great deal of our creative insights come from. Problems that require creative insights will generally lead to an impasse, Kandel notes. Preparation, or a sustained effort at problem-solving, will eventually give way to a period of incubation. "Preparation is the period where we consciously work on a problem," Kandel writes, "and incubation is the period when we refrain from conscious thought and allow our unconscious to work."

While we still understand very little about creativity, Kandel says we are moving into an era in which we will be able to get very good insights into the kind of situations that lead to increased creativity. For instance, is group think productive?

What's the Significance?

With proper mental preparation, the relaxed state is where big ideas will come from. As Kandel writes, relaxation is "characterized by ready access to unconscious mental processes; in that sense it is somewhat analogous to dreaming." But don't just take it from Kandel. Take it from Mozart:

When I am, as it were, completely in myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer -- say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not; nor can I force them. All this fires my soul, and, provided I am not disturbed, my subject enlarges itself, becomes methodized and defined...All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing lively dream.

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