Have you ever realized that some of your most brilliant thinking comes at a time when you don’t have a pen or paper handy? Maybe you’re in the shower or out on a nice morning stroll when suddenly…BAM, you’re hit with a stroke of genius so intense, you make a mental note to save the thought until you can record it down. Yet, by the time you step out of the shower and towel off, you realized that your idea has already vanished into thin air – and with it, the Nobel Prize you were destined to obtain.
Just like the ancient Greek mathematician, Archimedes (who experienced his Eureka moment whilst bathing), we tend to get these kinds of thoughts whenever we engage in an aimless action, such as driving or walking. According to John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, these activities are perfect for triggering a revelation. The combination of monotony and aimless engagement for an extended period of time allows you to experience an uninterrupted stream of thought so that your mind naturally wanders and free associates.
To illustrate how this works, John likes to use a specific example. Let’s say there’s a stack of bricks in your backyard that you walk by every day. You don’t think much about it, but when asked to describe them, you categorize them as a building material. One day, however, while you’re showering, you start thinking about your neighbor’s walnut tree. Then suddenly you realize that you can smash those nuts open using one of the bricks from that stack! Thus, the brick that once was a building material is now a nutcracker.
Although this might not be the best example, it illustrates how your brain works liberated from external associations and constraints. Your ideas become like bumper cars, free to collide and bump up against each other, thereby increasing the likelihood of making a useful connection.
Typically, however, we focus too deeply on one specific task at hand that we begin to think very linearly. Every thought or idea, for example, must fall into some sort of context: a cloud must belong in the sky and a door only makes sense if it is part of a building. Even the expectation for insight can spoil the moment. If you enter the shower hoping for a spark of brilliance, for example, you’ll mostly exit empty-handed.
But that doesn’t mean you won’t ever have a “Eureka” moment. According to John, if you acclimatize yourself to your recording method (a notepad or recording device), and keep it out of sight, but within reach, your mind will more likely begin to free associate.