Insight

Jonah Lehrer has a good article in the New Yorker The Eureka Hunt (pdf) looking at research on what happens inside our heads when we come up with sudden insights. It seems to suggest it’s ok to try, but best not to try too much. Here’s a snippet:

The insight process, as sketched by Jung-Beeman and Kounios, is a delicate mental balancing act. At ?rst, 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 in-sights 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… We do some of our best thinking when we’re still half asleep…

(T)he insight process is an act of cognitive deliberation—the brain must be focussed on the task at hand—transformed by accidental, serendipitous connections. We must concentrate, but we must concentrate on letting the mind wander.

I think the challenge is hold space open for ideas to come in the face of organisational pressures to deliver results to a timetable.

Hat tip: David Smith

UPDATE: I liked Earl’s riff on this theme:

That’s why the Christians begin the bible with “in the beginning there was nothing” rather than, “in the beginning there was a brainstroming session where nothing was too stupid to go on the table”.

2 thoughts on “Insight

  1. David

    I liked this in the Guardian interview last Saturday with Sharon Olds:

    She says she writes when “a poem has formed itself, or its beginning, within me, and it’s time to get a pen and notebook and sit over there on the rocking chair next to the window and try to bring forth that which is within.”

    Can she see the words in her head? “It’s a little more hearing – it’s almost as if I hear them just before they come out the end of the pen. I don’t hear them, but it’s as if they’re in a chamber just outside my hearing. I don’t usually try to write a poem unless that’s happening. The poems come to me, I don’t go to them. As soon as I see that what I’m mulling – a line or a sentence is repeating itself in my mind, like an obsessive thought, or a kind of conceit or concept – as soon as I see that it’s a poem, I go and write it. And there’s a lot of crossing out, I write the first draft in maybe half an hour, 45 minutes – these are all pretty short poems. When I feel that I’ve made a false move, I try to cross it out back up to where it’s okay. And then try to bring it down again, OK, all the way to the end.”

    Reply

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