It was Sunday in church, 1973, when Arthur Fry had his moment of insight. Fry, a member of the choir, was having trouble marking pages for the hymnals. Whenever he opened the book his makeshift bookmarks fell out or got caught in the seams. The problem was innocent enough, yet it persisted. What Fry really needed was an adhesive strong enough so his bookmarks stuck to the pages but weak enough so he wouldn’t damage the pages when he removed the bookmarks.
He recalled a seminar given by his 3M colleague, Spencer Silver, a few years ago. Silver described a new adhesive he discovered during his talk and Fry had been wondering how it could be applied ever since. That’s when the answer came to him: why not use Silver’s adhesive for the bookmark?
He called his idea the Post-It note.
Fry, of course, isn’t the only person to experience a moment of insight. Henrí Poincaré is famous for thinking up Non-Euclidean geometry while boarding a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…. I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.” Einstein, moreover, is known to have thought up Special Relativity after glimpsing at Bern’s famous clock tower.
When we think about eureka moments Rodin’s The Thinker comes to mind, maybe Newton’s famous apple inspired insight (as the story goes). We associate insights with deep concentration and contemplation. But surprising new research is demonstrating another side to the story. This is what Fry’s story tells us, that breakthroughs occur when we are relaxed, when the mind is not focused but at ease. An insight requires a lot hard work; it is often the peak of years of work. But on the path to discovery it’s important to let the mind wonder.
A recent experiment by Mareike Wieth and Rose Zacks demonstrated this nicely. They recruited 428 undergrads who identified themselves as either night owls or morning larks. Next Wieth and Zacks asked them to attempt 6 problem-solving tasks; half the problems were insights-based while the other half was analytical-based and they were given four minutes to solve them.
Here’s where things got interesting. Half of the students were tested between 8:30am and 9:30am while the other half were tested between 4 and 5:30pm. The researchers found that the undergrads were better at solving the insight problems when they tested during their least optimal time of function. This means that owls did better in the morning while larks did better in the afternoon. The BPS Research Digest explains the details:
When larks were tested in the evening and owls were tested in the morning, they achieved an average success rate of 56, 22 and 49 per cent, for the three insight tasks, compared with success rates of 51, 16, and 31 per cent achieved by students tested at their preferred time of day. By contrast, performance on the analytic tasks was unaffected by time of day.
Their findings are counter-intuitive but consistent with other recent research. Mark Jung-Beeman is a psychologist from the University of Northwestern who studies what happens in the brains when it has a moment of insight. A few years ago he teamed with John Kounios to try to understand the neuroscience behind problem solving. To do this they used EEG and fMRI to measure subjects while they completed Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A.P problems, as the joke goes). Here’ an example: What word fits with “pine,” crab,” and “sauce?” The correct answer is “apple” (pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce).
They found that participants went through several phases as they tackled the problems. First was the preparatory phase where the prefrontal cortex was hot with activity. Next was the search phase where many parts of the brain were active. After that subjects either gave up or solved the problems. Jung-Beeman and Kounis found that the successful ones showed a burst in gamma rhythm, which is generated when neurons bind to each other. They also found a spike of activity in the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG) moments before the insight. The aSTG is a fairly mysterious brain region but it is has been linked to the processing of metaphors. This makes some sense. C.R.A.P problems are, after all, about linking seemingly unrelated ideas.
What does this mean? One New Yorker article explains that, “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 focused, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight.”
Research by Joy Bhattacharya of University London, Goldsmith confirmed this. Bhattacharya found that EEG data accurately predicted if a subject was going to solve a problem up to eight second in advance. What tipped the subjects off were alpha waves, which are electrical neural oscillations that show up when you are about to fall asleep, when you’re getting out of bed or when you’re taking a warm shower. “Sleeping on it” turns out to have some neurological merit.
The British Comedian John Cleese also confirms this research with an enlightening talk about his early day at Cambridge:
If I was trying to write a sketch at night and I got stuck… I would go to bed. And when I woke up in the morning and made myself a cup of coffee and went back to my desk and looked at the problem not only was the solution to this problem immediately apparent to me, but I couldn’t even remember what the problem had been the previous night.
In a Red-Bull driven society it’s believed that intense focus, determination and willingness to never give up are vital, but Cleese and this informing research remind us that a clenched state of mind is sometimes counter-productive. Indeed, caffeine might be our best friend when it comes to solving problems, but certainly not always.
The important role relaxation plays in problem solving, insights, aha-moments and the so-called creative process is receiving a lot of attention. In a recent article on Time.com the science writer Annie Murphy Paul described the study by Wieth and Zacks and reminded readers that, “by not giving yourself time to tune in to your meandering mind, you’re missing out on the surprising solutions it may offer.” Similarly, “when you have to be creative,” says University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock on PsychologyToday.com, “working at your non-optimal time of day is actually optimal.” (There is even new research suggesting that being sleepy and drunk is good for creativity!)
To be sure, empirical results from the science of insights are confirming, not discovering, what many have known for centuries. The Austrian born physicist Fritjof Capra has a wonderful quote that captures this point. In his book The Tao Of Physics he explains the following:
Rational knowledge and rational activities certainly constitute the major part of scientific research, but are not all there is to it. The rational part of research would, in fact, be useless if it were not complemented by the intuition that gives scientists new insights and makes them creative. These insights tend to come suddenly and, characteristically, not when sitting at a desk working out the equations, but when relaxing, in the bath, during a walk in the woods, on the beach, etc. During these periods of relaxation after concentrated intellectual activity, the intuitive mind seems to take over and can produce the sudden clarifying insights which give so much joy and delight to scientific research.
So it was with Fry, who, on the fateful Sunday morning, was innocuously singing hymnals when he had his insight. He wasn’t thinking about Silver’s research; he probably wasn’t thinking about much at all. But that was the important part. It was the calming presences of his fellow choir members, the congregation and warming resonance of the hymns that allowed his neurons to relax and form brand new synapses. And with his new neural network he left church to change the world, one Post-It note at a time.