Friday, November 14, 2008

The Science Of Having An Idea



I've written before about How To Tell If You've Had An Idea in which I described how my own (regrettably rare) 'lightbulb moments' feel like a mild electrical shock in the brain.

Now a wonderful New Yorker article from July 2006, sent to me by Johnny Cleaver, sheds some scientific light on the question.

It's largely an interview with Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, who has spent 15 years studying exactly what is happening in the brain at the 'moment of insight.'

His observations include these:

1 Solving problems with insight uses a complete different part of the brain than solving problems with analysis

2 The sensory areas of the brain go quiet just before an insight, as the brain diverts its considerable computational powers to focusing on the problem

3 Insight nearly always follows a feeling of impasse, comes suddenly, and is preceded by a massive spike of electrical activity

Does this tally with what it's like for you? And I'm curious to know how many times a day/month/year do you experience this moment of insight?

You can read an extract of the article here, maybe the whole thing if you register.

30 comments:

Anonymous said...

I don't experience it that often. If I did, i wouldn't be working at Delaney Lund

Dan from Idea Bounty said...

Happens to me...

Often i will sit for hours without a single decent ideas and then... well it appears out of nowhere.

Now i just have to figure out how to naturally trigger it.

Anonymous said...

Its like being in a dark forest completely lost with no obvious direction to go and then suddenly stepping into a clearing, with sunlight and birds chirping when you have an idea.

then its usually back into the forest for another forage, thanks to research wanting 3+ routes etc.

Anonymous said...

It's usually the case when you are not specifically trying to focus on that one thing, that it comes to you.

A bit of a jolt, moment of clarity type thing - yes.

Weirdly, I seem to have a lot of ideas laying awake at night. I believe them to be utterly astounding, possibly even ground-breaking, pioneering, borderline genius. 'How can nobody have thought of that before' ideas!

Then I wake up the next morning, I quickly realise that nobody has done these ideas because they are shit. Well Morrisons have, but that's all.

Anonymous said...

A train of thoughts that lead you somewhere makes you think that the end thought is genius. When you take the train away what you're left with is usually incomprehensible cack. Controlling the train is what we all hope to learn with practice.

Anonymous said...

It takes me three days.
Day one- Fuck all.
Day two -Fuck all.
Day three - (about tea time)Ideas.

Trouble with this is that no one ever gets three days on a brief these days.

Suits argue thus though:-

"You've had the brief for a week."

What they don't understnd is that this doesn't take into accont all the fuckwittery of Creative Directors, planners and clients pissing about with all the other ads you're working on and all that precious time you could be devoting to the new brief, is spent fucking about with a concept that's been bouncing between you and the other above bastards, making time consuming, often crap and largely meaningless "builds" (as problems are now called).
Cunts.

Anonymous said...

2:02

amen brother.

i wish the cunts would fuck off. talentless apropriating shitehawks.

yes planners. that means you. don't argue. you're in the wrong job.

CHARQU said...

yes, i usually get an adrenaline rush after the sudden thought, too. can't wait to get to work the next day. sad, but true.

Anonymous said...

so, if i eat more light bulbs or electric goods, will i become better at my job?

Anonymous said...

Ideas are a piece of piss.
I can literally fart them out on demand.

Anonymous said...

3.49

and i bet they fucking stink, too.

Anonymous said...

I get ideas just after I've had a tantrum in my office and told my partner I've absolutely had it with the piece of shit brief and the people who keep blowing our ideas out and I'm not doing one more idea and that's fucking it, period. Then, 15 seconds later and idea pops into the vacuum.

Anonymous said...

@3:49

You fart piss? Gross.

oxilivo said...

My ideas feel like mighty orgasms, the kind you get when you haven't had a wank or a shag for a couple of hours.

kate moss said...

Having an idea is like having cock:

They often slip out when you're doing something else (like filling your crack pipe).

The bigger and more numerous they are, the happier you get.

And if you cover them in Nutella they don't half chafe your pissflaps.

Anonymous said...

KATE!!!!!!
How have you been?!

Anonymous said...

how can we be sure it's her?

gordon torr said...

Hate to spoil a good blog by taking the question seriously, but this is pretty important. Almost all of the popular literature on creativity, especially from writers such as De Bono, Mike Vance and their cohorts, assumes that having an idea is the same thing as solving a problem. You can trace this line of thinking back to Alex Osborn, the "O" in BBDO and the inventor of the world's most powerful idea-obliterating technique, the brainstorm. There are a number of reasons why this mad notion has taken the fancy of the technocrats, not least of all the implication that everyone is just as creative as everyone else, there's no such thing as a creative person and, hence, that Scamp has no reason to be looking out of the window when he should be working like the rest of us. So it's good to read this latest evidence in support of my contention that managing for ideas is a whole lot different than managing for baked beans.

Anonymous said...

I usually experience such moments when I'm very very tired. It takes some sort of numbness to make sure I don't have the mood for looking at things very analytically. Early mornings are also very inspirational, at about 4-5 o'clock. Music helps a lot. And one more thing: trains of information. Read as much as you can. I don't mean literature. Read various things from various domains. Biology is a great inspirational ground. Intense feelings also. Get excited about god knows what. Have sex if necessary. Headline for it: Avoid boredom. And yes, the right mood for great insights can be induced.

And @gordon torr:
I subscribe to the idea that it is the same thing as solving a problem, but I prefer the Socratic method to brainstorming.

soho hath a pair of eyes said...

It's almost half past eleven. Friday night. Here we are. Still at work. The music is on. I'm in that space between awake and sleep. There's beer. There's burger. I believe the crack is on it's way. Yet still...nothing. I wish my lightbulb would flicker. I have a hat party to get to.

Anonymous said...

Usually when the time when I pay less attention on the work or in a "Chill" mode.

G

Suzanna B. Stinnett said...

I have used several deliberate processes to trigger streams of insight. All of them allow me to "escape" the left brain habits editorial and analytical. As long as I am not overly fatigued, it always works. One way is to drive, on a particular road for a particular amount of time. Another is a walking meditation. A third is writing in mirror image. If you'd like to know more about it you can email me. Suzanna@greatadaptations.org
Cheers

rhayter said...

I can 'force' myself to have ideas by following a set process. However, as Anon 3.49 said, ideas are easy. Good ideas are harder.

Anonymous said...

Good weed always works.

But i have to say i completely agree with Gordon. Brainstorming is the biggest pile of shite ever. Followed only by sitting with your feet on a desk facing your partner with a pad and a pen trying to come up with ideas: painful!

Anonymous said...

I always know the exact moment I've had a good idea, as it's just after I've handed the work in.

erin said...

Um, I'm taking this post seriously and am rather appalled at a good share of the comments that include c**k and sh*t and p*ss. But maybe you're all from across the pond and that's "code" for I get what you're putting out planner. Anyway...

Great post. When I read the pre/post brain chemistry process (slow and then fast) I immediately got excited - exhilarated more like it and will find it hard to distinguish between exhilarating creative energy and having an idea for the sake of answering your question.

Insights don't seem to happen on any "regular" basis but rather whenever I let my mind go. When I try to focus too hard, it gets tripped up and nothing really good comes out of it. When I free flow, it's amazing. I would use a brain map for this kind of thinking. THIS LAST SENTENCE was an INSIGHT right now in real time. Thinking about free flow landed me on mindmap landed me on productivity landed me on why I do what I do landed me on having ideas.

Thanks for making me think. :)

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
pete said...

Ever see JW Young's book - A Technique for Producing Ideas - written in the 1940s? (He was copy chief with JWT, I think.) Gives a great rundown of the process/events you're all describing.

gordon torr said...

The problem with the James Webb Young thing (which by the way, like most good ad people, he'd kindof borrowed from Rossman who'd kindof borrowed it from Wallas who'd kindof borrowed it from Helmholtz)is that it works only in retrospect, making it slightly less useful than it appears at first glance. There's a lot more on this in my book, if you're interested.

Alistair said...

Not sure it's that different a buzz between solving a problem or having an idea, more the intensity. I've had a pretty good buzz from solving a maths problem many years ago or figuring out a mechanical problem too. And it's not only creating the idea that gives you a jolt, watching Apple 1984 and Tango Blackcurrant for the first time made me feel like I'd been kicked in the stomach. (Not having ever thought of anything quite that good, I'm not sure whether I'd feel exactly the same if I'd come up with them.) On the other hand, rubbish/samey/wanky ads (and client suggestions) actually drain the energy out of me.
Hey Gordon, knew you'd make a guru one day.