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Portrait of René Descartes by Jan Baptist Weenix

Rene Descartes had one of his greatest eureka moments while lying in bed idly watching a fly hover in the air.

One of the most commonly talked about aspects of the creative process is the phenomenon of having sudden key insights after one has carefully considered the facts and, unable to find a solution, turned to other things – the famous “eureka” experience. There are many entertaining anecdotes revealing how famous creators experienced a sudden flash of insight, often while doing something quite ordinary. Because of three particularly well-known stories, one might call this the bed, bath, and bus scenario.

It all began in Greece. Archimedes supposedly had his eureka moment while relaxing in the public baths and ran home naked shouting “eureka” (I found it) thereby giving the experience its name. The bit about running au naturel through the streets is probably Roman hokum, but it does vividly capture the sense of intense excitement that accompanies the unexpected breakthrough. Henri Poincaré had his seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry just as he boarded a bus. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. The French mathematician attributed his insight to “unconscious work” and claimed an ability to ruminate on math problems while engaged in unrelated activities like chatting with a friend on a bus. Descartes suddenly envisioned his Cartesian co-ordinate system while lying in bed idly watching a fly hovering in the air. In all three cases, the insight followed considerable foundation-laying work that had as yet borne no fruit.

The best way to explain the eureka phenomenon is by considering how the human mind works. As we approach a problem, we make our first examination of the situation using the conscious reasoning faculty, which organizes and assesses the information logically. That is, we group or categorize all facts and the relationships among them according to the logic of the material. We consciously think about the problem. However, when the reasoning faculty cannot arrive at a suitable conclusion we reach an impasse. Life being what it is, we eventually have to let go and other activities occupy our attention. The faculty of memory takes over, storing our mental struggles, and as cognitive research has shown, memory is structured using feeling tone as the primary organizing principle. Memory does not use the logical grouping set up by the reasoning faculty. The brain reorganizes the material according to feeling-tone tags, a non-linear associative process that places bits of information in new juxtapositions. Finally, during one of these “distracted” periods, unexpected fresh insights, forged from those new juxtapositions or associations, suddenly break through into conscious awareness.

A further source of illumination may come from what was already in memory prior to tackling the problem. Some memories will share the feeling tone of aspects of the problem at hand. As the brain files new material alongside these older memories, another set of non-linear juxtapositions or associations will be set up, this time with material that may have been previously unconsidered. Again, surprising insights may suddenly emerge while the conscious mind is preoccupied with unrelated activities.