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  • Brendan Stec

How to have [more] good ideas

February 2nd, 2021

A Useful Shower Thought

In 1990, NASA engineer James H. Cocker was paying a visit to a European Space Agency team to see if they had any clue how to fix the Hubble space telescope. As he relaxed and took a shower back at his hotel room, he noticed the finely engineered German shower head was adjustable, as it could be pivoted, raised and lowered to reach almost any human height.

Cocker instantly experienced an “a-ha” moment as he intuited that the Hubble’s primary mirror could be re-calibrated by using an adjustable repair device not too different from this same shower head. In 1993, 11 astronauts shot back into orbit to successfully repair the Hubble, bringing with them Cocker’s phone booth-sized repair tool.

The idea that saved the Hubble was not borne in a research laboratory or in a status meeting, but in a shower.

And this may make you wonder. Where do great ideas come from? Because often it seems they come from nowhere, at unexpected times or in unexpected places.

In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash's Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough happens after a (likely apocryphal) observation at the local bar.

The Underrated Unconscious

The French mathematician Jacques Hadamard’s discoveries frequently dawned on him while doing mundane activities, such as taking a shower or boarding a bus. Albert Einstein noticed his brilliant physics breakthroughs surfaced while he took a break from the theorizing and played his violin, the relaxing activity allowing his brain to form new connections between ideas.

In James Webb Young’s classic, A Technique for Producing Ideas, step 3 of his 5-step idea-producing process is “Unconscious Processing.” As he writes:

What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep. [...] [W]hen you reach this third stage in the production of an idea, drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

Then, step 4 happens, the “a-ha moment”. He continues:

“Out of nowhere the Idea will appear. It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.”

We’ve all been taking out the trash or washing the dishes when we’ve had an interesting idea, perhaps not one that will win us a Nobel Prize, but one that maybe resolved a roadblock at work or a conflict at home.

What exactly is our brain doing to come up these ideas?

While there is no accepted consensus among researchers regarding the exact neural processes that cause these sudden flashes of insight, psychologists and neuroscientists do generally agree upon the following:

  1. Taking a break from consciously thinking about a problem and doing some unrelated activity can improve the likelihood we experience a flash of insight that either solves our problem or brings us closer to solving it. This is sometimes called the incubation effect.

  2. While taking this break and letting our thoughts “incubate”, our unconscious mind is still working on the problem even while we’re not consciously thinking about it.

  3. To have a good idea, we do still need to first lay a foundation of conscious, deliberate thought. Good ideas don’t actually come from nowhere! Cocker, Hadamard, Einstein: they were all chewing on their problem for a while before they handed things over to their unconscious to connect the dots.

Good ideas emerge after we first try really hard. And then do something boring or routine, so our mind can wander and connect new concepts our conscious mind wouldn’t typically piece together. Then hopefully: aha!

But let’s take a step back for a second. How often do we actually do this on a daily basis? How often do we use targeted breaks to take our creative problem-solving and idea-generation to the next level?

I don’t think it’s as much as we could.

"I need some space"

These days, as we are apparently more over-stimulated and over-entertained than ever, it’s easy to overlook the value of breaks, monotony, and even a little boredom.

In fact, I’d venture to say that most of us (including me):

  • Plunge into our phones within a few minutes of waking up

  • Exercise with music, check email while in the elevator, or drive to work while listening to a podcast/radio

  • Browse the Internet while waiting for someone to join a meeting

  • Catch up on text messages while taking a break

In these few moments when our brain would otherwise get a chance to speak to us, we feed it with more information, more stimulation. What insights are we missing during these crucial moments we keep our conscious mind “on”, for fear of being “unproductive”, while it really should be “off”?

To recapture these insights, there are a variety of tried-and-true methods to provide us with more unstructured time in our day, more opportunity for the free association of different concepts and thus (!) more room for our unconscious to go to work to produce good ideas. Meditation, yoga, a morning walk or run. I think they’re all essentially different means to the same end.

They all force us to step away from the minutiae and just be present with our mind, and only that.

Personally, I’m always perplexed by how a 20-minute walk by myself can appear to be such a colossal waste of time (as in, that’s 20 minutes I could be doing [fill in the blank]), until I come back inside with 2 or 3 new ideas I can write about, ideas that didn’t surrender from top-down, fist-on-temples analysis but simply emerged as I crossed 16th Street.

It’s been 4 years and I haven’t yet run out ideas.

Scientists estimate that we’re conscious of only about 5% of our cognitive function. (1) This means the remaining 95% lies in our unconscious, implying there is a well of emotions, memories, and concepts waiting to be connected together, molded into new ideas.

And the first step for tapping into this well involves giving it some time and space to speak to us.




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