Every so often, we face a job we dread because it seems exceedingly dull. As a child, I felt that way about household chores—scrubbing a toilet, sweeping a floor, wiping a countertop, weeding. I remember one day my grandmother was visiting and announced that she would sweep the floor for me, because she liked sweeping. What? She explained something about the little piles that I really tried to appreciate—because I wanted to like sweeping too—but alas, could not. Recently, however, I’ve been given a new reason to like sweeping, and other somewhat tiresome tasks. It is not because the tasks themselves can be made more intellectually invigorating, but because they generally cannot. When the mind is not fully engaged, it can wander—and that’s often when insights arrive.
Recently, I asked readers to tell me about their “Aha!” moments, those flashes of insight that can sometimes lead to creative products. The request came on the heels of Mind’s July/August cover story, “The Aha! Moment,” in which Nessa Victoria Bryce outlined the five steps in the creative process: Exploration, Focus, Incubation, Insight, Follow-Through. In the incubation step, people are encouraged to stop consciously thinking about the problem they are trying to solve to let ideas incubate. Indeed, several respondents told stories of suddenly solving a problem while not doing much of anything. Their tales reminded me to value downtime for my brain and to develop ways to capture any insights that might show up during idle moments.
Two respondents, both working on a master’s thesis at the time, appeared to get their Eureka moments while sleeping; at least they arrived upon a sudden awakening in the middle of the night. From Erik Hanitzsch: "This goes back to 1966…One of my homeworks required a simple [computer] program. However the darn thing would not compile. It simply refused. Three a.m., I was sound asleep, woke up, started to get myself dressed. My wife asked me what I was doing. 'I found it!! I have to go to the West Engineering Building, start the computer and make the correction.' 'Oh honey! Don't be silly. Go back to sleep.' 'No! I have to do it now, otherwise I'll forget it!' And off I went, corrected the error; it compiled and 'Hurrah' now I can go back to sleep."
From Brad Waugh: "During one of our weekly meetings, my supervisor mentioned a problem he had been stumped by for some time, looking at the stability of the Vaidya metric and hence its suitability in modeling an evaporating black hole near zero mass. … I had developed the habit of keeping a pad of paper and pen by my bedside in case inspiration came in the night - as it had done on previous occasions. That night, …I awoke with the basic nugget of a solution to his problem, based on a simple piece of mathematics I had learned in a second year math class. I spent a few days working out the details and making sure I had not made an elementary error before presenting it, but it held up to my scrutiny - and then that of my slightly miffed and even more skeptical supervisor. The result was important and became my first publication."
For David Stevenson, a Eureka moment came while riding a bus. "I had an idea about how protein synthesis [evolved] in living organisms that had previously used only RNA molecules. I'd [had] the basic idea in the Spring of 1998, but I couldn't tie all of the bits together successfully. Then, while on the bus in Leicester, in the autumn of 2001 I had a brainwave that linked the structure of the tRNA, the structure of the ribosome and the process of translation into one realistic model. I was simply looking out of the window on the bus as I was heading home for a coffee, when the different pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The article was published a few months later in The Journal of Theoretical Biology."
In addition to sleeping or staring out the window, monotonous tasks are known to encourage the mind to drift. Researchers have asked people to engage in tedious tasks involving strings of letters or numbers to induce them to daydream. In one experiment, scientists detected heightened activity in the default network, a web of neurons that springs to life when we are not absorbed in focused tasks, just before people made a mistake, a sign of drifting attention (see “Living in a Dream World: The Role of Daydreaming in Problem-Solving and Creativity,” by Josie Glausiusz, Scientific American Mind, March/April 2011). So although it may be frustrating to find yourself zoning out over text you are assigned to read, that activity might, in fact, be fertile ground for creative thinking. Sleep also seems to be a time of fruitful reflection in which the subconscious may come to our aid. To capture those sudden flashes of understanding, putting a pen or pencil by the bed seems like an excellent idea.
In addition to appreciating idle moments or dull duties, you can deliberately set aside time for reflection, as one of our respondents, Elly Vintiadis, a philosopher, suggested: "I intentionally take time off from a problem, so that I let my mind process it in the background, so to speak, and get the “a-ha!” moment…It is not always a moment, sometimes it is like “Light dawning gradually over the whole” to use Wittgenstein’s turn of phrase. … I now also always encourage my students to start working on their papers as soon as they can so that they work on a problem for a bit and then put aside for some time and return to it later."
Of course, you have to notice an interesting thought when it comes to you and recognize its significance so that you can build upon it. An artist named Brian Williams explained how he came up with the idea of painting on a curved, rather than flat, surface. From fleeting observations of his surroundings that would have eluded most, Williams developed new ideas about how to produce art. Here is a passage from his entry:
"I have spent my professional life as a painter trying to discover ways to make painted scenes that feel more real. I have worked mostly intuitively but often also analytically, discovering (or re-discovering, actually), among other things, methods such as subtle gradations (to depict radiating light over a landscape and create localized luminosity), and almost transparent layers of white and tinted paint over previously painted passages (to create a sensation of atmosphere and create atmospheric perspective). At one point I began to search for ways to depict a wider visual field than is normally possible without distortions. I began by using elongated rectangles in a panoramic format. One day in the Grand Canyon, after trying to paint a view in a side slot canyon ranging from the sky above, through the distant rim, descending past the waterfall in front and down to the stream at my feet, I was struggling to slip the long vertical painting into my waterproof portfolio. It was bowed and stuck, and in that instant I happened to look up again at the real scene and then to my watercolor. I realized in an instant that it worked better curved than flat, and I went on to create a number of gently curved paintings that were very successful at representation of wide fields of view without distortion. This was my first step away from FLAT PAINTING. It was a revelation in its own right but also a preparatory step along the way to a greater revelation. That revelation came high up in a bucket truck I was painting from (narrated best in the TED talk I gave in Kyoto in 2013) when I realized in an instant the true nature of the sensation of seeing. And in the next instant, building on the earlier curved paintings, to realize the idea that I call Parabolic Painting: each scene depicted with its own uniquely curved and externally shaped panel, to both suggest the sensation of the visual sphere, and the pattern of motion of your eyes as you visually gather in the scene before you….One feels as if one is there, looking into a real space at a real scene."
Williams had obviously prepared his mind to develop these key insights—as had the computer programmer, physicist and biologist—through extensive experience and study. Williams wasn’t bored or idle, but he was actively pondering the mundane. He was viewing those seemingly inconsequential moments, such as putting away a painting or looking down for a dropped paintbrush, in new ways. In that light, I think my grandmother was onto something when she tried to give me a new outlook on sweeping. Not only could I have used my time pushing a broom to think, but I might have noticed something in the act of collecting debris, or about the little piles I’d made, that inspired a much bigger idea. And I still might…