Where do big ideas come from?

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

Where do big ideas come from?
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.

From 1.8 million years ago, earliest evidence of human activity found

Scientists discover what our human ancestors were making inside the Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa 1.8 million years ago.

Inside the Kalahari Desert Wonderwerk Cave

Credit: Michael Chazan / Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Surprising Science
  • Researchers find evidence of early tool-making and fire use inside the Wonderwerk Cave in Africa.
  • The scientists date the human activity in the cave to 1.8 million years ago.
  • The evidence is the earliest found yet and advances our understanding of human evolution.
Keep reading Show less

How cell phone data can help redesign cities

With the rise of Big Data, methods used to study the movement of stars or atoms can now reveal the movement of people. This could have important implications for cities.

Credit: Getty Images
13-8
  • A treasure trove of mobility data from devices like smartphones has allowed the field of "city science" to blossom.
  • I recently was part of team that compared mobility patterns in Brazilian and American cities.
  • We found that, in many cities, low-income and high-income residents rarely travel to the same geographic locations. Such segregation has major implications for urban design.
Keep reading Show less

The never-ending trip: LSD flashbacks and a psychedelic disorder that can last forever

A small percentage of people who consume psychedelics experience strange lingering effects, sometimes years after they took the drug.

Credit Imageman Rez via Adobe Stock
Mind & Brain
  • LSD flashbacks have been studied for decades, though scientists still aren't quite sure why some people experience them.
  • A subset of people who take psychedelics and then experience flashbacks develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare condition in which people experience regular or near-constant psychedelic symptoms.
  • There's currently no cure for the disorder, though some studies suggest medications may alleviate symptoms.
Keep reading Show less
Mind & Brain

Mind and God: The new science of neurotheology

Studies show that religion and spirituality are positively linked to good mental health. Our research aims to figure out how and why.

Quantcast