“It is my belief, you see, that thinking is a double phenomenon like breathing.” – Asimov
If you enjoy reruns of the classic television series House — you’ll find that every medical mystery is solved in the most unusual moments. Without fail, House’s uncanny ability to problem solve, kicks in while he sits in the hospital cafeteria, mid-sentence while talking to a team member or any other situation where he doesn’t outwardly appear to be focusing on the problem on deck.
It is always intriguing to watch.
However, we shouldn’t be surprised about why this happens. You see, our brains function in curious ways.
Your Brain Revealed
In the classic essay The Eureka Phenomenon (1971), Issac Asimov explores why these moments of inspiration occur when we least expect them. Asimov’s theory is quite simple, posing the notion that thought includes both voluntary and involuntary components. Moreover, opportunities for both types of thought must be present to become highly effective. Essentially, we can be thinking about one thing on the surface, yet ruminating on another topic below — the involuntary part of the equation.
The Eureka Phenomena sheds an interesting light on how we might become more effective in the workplace. As we all have experienced, if you are focusing too long and too intently on one topic or issue, you can be unsuccessful. Asimov would say that involuntary thought was not allowed to flourish and that contributed to the failure.
He recollects that when he was in the midst of a problem he could not solve, he shifted his focus and “shuffled” off to the movies. This action ultimately, allowed him to work through his challenge. He also tells the story of Archimedes — and how a visit to the public baths helped him to discover the concept of volume.
Of course, you may find that taking a walk or baking does the trick, but the process is of no less importance. You must give your brain the “down time” it needs to succeed.
Office Life and Involuntary Thought
There are millions of individuals who have the responsibility to process information concerning people, places and things for a living. Many attempt to accomplish this in an office environment. Of course, working in a traditional office does have merit. There are opportunities for collaboration and serendipity — yet obstacles to productivity abound. As discussed by Jason Fried in his classic Ted Talk, many aspects of office life (such as interruptions), can prove to be huge offenders, curtailing deep, meaningful thought.
During the course of a typical office work day, an individual may complete a multitude of activities and appear outwardly productive. However their brain power may not be maximized, as there are few opportunities to rest, reflect and digest information.
The Eureka Phenomena Applied
You must remember that while thought doesn’t require physical output, your brain is still hard at work. So, while you may not perceive that you are fatigued, your brain may actually be exhausted. As studies have shown, allowing the brain time to rest is critical. In this way, the brain finds the fuel it needs, so that energy can be funneled to the involuntary mechanisms that promote deeper thought. If we can learn anything from Asimov — it is that the brain cannot be bullied into becoming effective. It must be respected and nurtured.
Be mindful to offer your mind a bit of rest and identify those activities which help your brain relax and build them into your day.
Ultimately — don’t feel guilty if you feel the need to “shuffle off” to the movies.
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and workplace strategist. You can also find her on Twitter and Linkedin.
6 thoughts on “Problem Solving & Rest: Another Look at the Eureka Phenomenon”
Friday, July 23, 2015.
Dr. Marla, I LOVE your beautiful mind! Your are so on point. I always approach the discovery of precisely needed solutions by giving my brain a specifically desired end result and then partake in activities that give me the greatest amounts of pleasure: (such as spending time with, or touching base with my daughters, sons and grandchildren to give them some LOVE. Keep doing your thing!
An interesting discussion is definitely
worth comment. I do think that you ought to
publish more about this subject matter, it may not be
a taboo matter but generally folks don’t discuss such topics.
To the next! All the best!!
What a great post, Marla.
I’ve worked as a software engineer for 30 years and programming since high school. I’ve lost track of the number of times the solution to a difficult problem “came to me out of the blue”. When struggling, I will set problem aside and within 24 hours I’ll have an epiphany. It might not be the final solution, but it will always be a new insight, which enables progress.
Whether the work is creative in nature or information intensive it is important for the mind to change gears and rest.
Do you think it is useful to insist that there be opportunities for play inside any workplace where creativity is required?