Monday, August 04, 2008

Austin K musing on the Neuroscience of Not-Knowing

It's my almost weekly reference to something Austin Kleon has posted. Could there be anyone reading this blog who now doesn't read his? Thanks as always Austin! Make sure to tell him where you get your best ideas.



Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

Trying hard to solve that impossible problem? Hit the topless bar, take a warm shower, and sleep on it.

Three tips I gathered from Jonah Lehrer’s great article in the July 28th New Yorker called “The Eureka Hunt,” all about “insight,” where our good ideas come from, when they come to us, and why.

The formula:

total immersion → relaxing distraction = moment of insight

The insight process…is a delicate mental balancing act. At first, the brain lavishes the scarce resource of attention on a single problem. But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.” Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-Beeman said, “The problem with the morning, though, is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.” He recommends that if we’re stuck on a difficult problem, it’s better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking while we’re still half asleep.

The mathematician Henri PoincarĂ© had his “seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry…while he was boarding a bus.”

PoincarĂ© insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good has been accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey”. The answer will arrive when you least expect it.

And let’s not forget Richard Feynman:

the Nobel Prize winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

The good stuff comes along when you’re not forcing it—what Lynda Barry and Donald Barthelme call “not-knowing.”

My “Eureka!” moments always come to me in the shower, which is why I keep a dry-erase marker in the bathroom.

When do y’all get your best ideas?

1 comment:

Annie in Austin said...

I found you by accident - now you've led me to Austin K. Yeah, I know it's all over my head, grainyms, but thanks for the link.

Annie at the Transplantable Rose