You know the feeling: You’re at an impasse with a character or plot point. You’re frustrated. It’s going nowhere, but you’re on a deadline. You’ve run out of ways to spur your muse.
Consider this: Don’t work so hard. The less you push, the better your chances of getting what you need. Your brain needs some space to do its best work. In other words, relax and trust it.
Isaac Asimov realized this. Whenever he experienced writer’s block, he knew it was useless to force the issue. So, he’d go to a movie. He’d let his subconscious process the material in its own way. Once he returned, he invariably had new ideas. (I did this once, and got ideas before I even sat down to watch.)
Many writers, inventors, scientists, artists, and mathematicians have discovered the same thing. When they’re focused on something else, or on nothing, the idea they need arrives – aha! –seemingly from nowhere.
But these insights seem so random. We think those people just got lucky.
According to recent neuroscience discoveries, that’s not true. Insights arrive with preparation.
Any of us can harness our resources to produce flashes of genius that will move our writing along. With a little work, we can prime our brain for “aha! moments.” Better yet, we can get them on a regular basis.
I call them “snaps,” because the aha! that really counts is insight plus momentum – it snaps us toward action. It makes us drop everything and run to our desk. It might even get us out of bed in the middle of the night. Sound exciting? It is!
I learned a lot about this experience from a 19th century mathematician, who described it to a group of psychiatrists. After reaching an impasse on a series of problems, Henri Poincaré went to the seaside to relax. When he went for a walk one morning, the idea he needed for resolving his impasse struck him at once. It was “immediately certain.” Upon returning, he got back to work, but there was one part that remained stubbornly mysterious. He worked on it day after day, to no avail. Again, he went on a trip, and while walking along the street, the solution hit him.
Comparing unconscious ideas to atoms, Poincaré said, “During a period of apparent rest and unconscious work, certain of them come unhooked from the wall and put in motion. They flash in every direction through the space where they are enclosed…. Then their mutual impacts may produce new combinations.”
Conscious work was necessary, he said, but it could go only so far. “We think we have done no good because we have moved these elements in a thousand different ways in seeking to assemble them,” he stated, “and have found no satisfactory aggregate. But after this shaking up imposed on them by our will, these atoms do not return to their primitive rest. They freely continue their dance.”
In a more modern frame, neuropsychiatrist Nancy Andreason suggests that the brain is a self-organizing system of feedback loops that constantly generates new thoughts, sometimes spontaneously. Using PET scans, she found activity in the association cortex, where information from diverse parts of the brain gets integrated.
The association cortex makes it possible to gather a lot of information in one place. Thus, it creates the conditions for novel associations. It makes sense, then, that when sudden insight occurs, the idea seems to arrive fully formed. It is! We don’t realize it because we don’t “feel” the brain working the way we do when we focus and concentrate, but it does.
While we’re not looking, our brains have the chance to mix and match all the ideas we’ve absorbed.
Here’s the formula: Scan, sift, and solve. First, you work: you do your research. Be diverse. Gather lots of different types of data. Immerse in your field of expertise, but also read something new to you. This “idea stew” forms your knowledge base. This is the scan stage.
Now, for the fun! Read through the material on which you’re blocked and then go do something else. Relaxing your left brain releases your eager right brain to sift through and reshape the data into new patterns. There is a lot of good research to support how this works.
Then, let your brain solve your problem. Stop clenching. Give your brain room to play. Then, when you least expect it, an idea will pop.
Consider these other examples:
· Jonas Salk was working on a cure for polio in a dark basement in Pittsburgh. He failed time and again, so he traveled to Italy to wander in a monastery. There, he experienced a rush of ideas, including the one that resulted in the polio vaccine.
· Martin Cooper was watching Star Trek when he first envisioned the cell phone.
· Math professor Darren Crowdy let his mind wander while listening to a lecture and he suddenly “saw” the solution to a long-unsolved math puzzle.
· J. K. Rowling was on a stalled train pondering the plot of an adult novel when she snapped on a child wizard. “I simply sat and thought, for four (delayed) hours,” she said, “and all the details bubbled up in my brain.”
Start now to learn your rhythms. After working, walk, take a shower, throw a stick for your dog: do something that relaxes the cognitive load. This gives your brain the energy it needs to merge data you’ve supplied and switch on your inner green light. Once you’ve learned what works, set up the conditions for doing it on a regular basis. You’ll be amazed by how often your brain will surprise you.
Katherine Ramsland is a writer and professor of forensic psychology and criminal justice. Among her 58 books are The Murder Game, The Mind of a Murderer, and Snap! Seizing Your Aha! Moments. She has published over 1,000 articles, is a #1 Wall Street Journal bestseller, and blogs for Psychology Today.
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