Perhaps the most famous anecdotal story of inspiration is Archimedes’ moment of inspiration that occurred while he was bathing. The ancient Greek scientist reportedly shouted “Eureka!” (meaning, “I have found it”) upon realizing that water displacement could be used to compute density, and thus he could solve the task of determining whether a crown of King Hiero II was pure gold or an alloy. As it turns out, activities like bathing and showering, or other tasks that promote relaxation and allow the mind to wander (a long walk in the country, fishing etc.), are associated with such moments of epiphany. This is often referred to in the literature as ‘random episodic silent thought’, or REST.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman discusses how being in a state of what he terms cognitive ease (as opposed to cognitive stress) allows our more intuitive mind (what he refers to as system 1 thinking) to function better. This comes at some cost to our analytic, or system 2 thinking mind however, and we tend to be less analytical and skeptical. This makes sense, as part of the creative process is withholding judgment and collecting a wide range of ideas and solutions (and will be discussed in a future Create Heuristic essay). Interestingly, being in a state of cognitive stress or anxiety in general, tends to narrow our scope of attention, and makes incorporating novel or broader stimuli less likely. There is evolutionary correlates to this as early humans would have been served well to focus on a threat from a predator, for example, and to not be distracted by less (immediately) relevant data.
Going a step further, beyond just being at a state of REST or ease, in turns out that an upbeat, positive mood enhances our ability to think insightfully and this is true whether that condition occurs spontaneously or whether it is induced in a laboratory setting. For example, neuroscientist Mark Beeman and his colleagues found that showing a clip of Robin Williams doing stand-up boosted the success rate of solving insight problems by about 20%. Humor seems to allow the brain to make connections between weak associations—a key to creativity. As the brilliant comedian John Cleese of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers fame said, “the main evolutionary significance of humor is that it gets us from the closed mode to the open mode quicker than anything else.” Another fascinating finding is that humor is a two way street: positive mood enhances insight, and solving problems with insight enhances mood. Apparently, we enjoy being creative!
There is also evidence that alcohol can enhance the ability to solve insight problems better and more quickly. Researchers at the University of Illinois, Chicago, found that a cohort that had achieved a blood alcohol level of .075% performed much better at solving word problems that required insight than their sober counterparts. Why? They postulated that “moderate intoxication may be one way to alter attentional states to be more conducive to creative processing.” The idea is that the right hemisphere can be freer to “ignore” the focused, attention state of the left, and connect weaker and more distant thoughts and associations with some alcohol on board. (A future Creative Heuristics essay will discuss the neuroscience of inspiration.)
Sleep and the transitional condition between wakefulness and sleep, called the hypnagogic state, also facilitate the creative mind and process. Many famous creatives have credited hypnagogia to their ability to invent and innovate. Thomas Edison, for example, was said to hold his metal keys in his hand as he rested in an armchair, with a metal plate on the floor directly below. As he was about to fall asleep, the keys would slip form his hand and clang on the plate, waking him and hopefully allowing him to benefit from any insights! Actual sleep itself is critical for achieving insight as well. In a paper published in the journal Nature, ‘Sleep Inspires Insight’, Ullrich Wagner and his colleagues discovered that eight hours of sleep greatly “facilitates extraction of explicit knowledge and insightful behavior.” They theorized this occurred due to some form of restructuring of newly acquired memories that occur during sleep.Finally, color may influence or enhance creative mood; specifically the color blue versus red. Subjects, in a study published in Science, were divided up between those performing tasks on a computer screen with a red background or a blue one. “Red groups did better on tests of recall and attention to detail, like remembering words or checking spelling and punctuation. Blue groups did better on tests requiring imagination, like inventing creative uses for a brick or creating toys from shapes.”
Creative Heuristic #3: Foster a culture of innovation and original thinking by encouraging and promoting good “creative hygiene”. Inspiration and creative insight can be augmented by allowing the mind to be well rested and free to wander, and be in a state of cognitive ease. Positive mood and humor—and the absence of anxiety—further enhance our ability to be creative. And when in doubt, add a glass of wine to the mix!
-Mark HT Ridinger