Columns, Imagine That

The residue of time wasted

My friend Kevin is a prolific idea person. He often calls me out of the blue to ask, “Mike, have you got a few minutes?” Most often, I agree because I know Kevin is going to expound on a new idea and he wants to pass it through someone else’s head to see what comes out.

One might think that Kevin has discovered how to flip the switch and turn on his creativity at will. In reality, he has accepted the conventional wisdom that you cannot predict when an idea will come to you. So Kevin has learned to capture those ideas as they occur by using a tiny notebook that he carries with him at all times. He even has one in his bedroom. He calls it his “Flash of Brilliance” notebook, and he has inspired me to do the same.

There is good news for Kevin and those of us who aspire to be creative thinkers. Some very smart people have been looking at going beyond merely catching flashes of brilliance when they appear, to examine how to persuade them to show up.

Michael Mann

Like the proverbial watched pot, our brains hit the boiling point when we don’t try to force it.

It turns out that flashes of brilliance all share a few essential features that scientists use to define what is called the “insight experience.” In his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, author Jonah Lehrer explains that the first stage of the insight experience is the stage of impasse. That’s right, it starts with the frustration of hitting the wall.

According to Lehrer, “When we tell one another the stories about creativity, we tend to leave out this phase of the creative process.” This feeling of impasse or boredom is an essential part of the creative process. When we reach the point of giving up, or let go of our preoccupation with the problem and allow our minds to wander or be bored, solutions are more likely to show up.

“The imagination,” writes Lehrer, “has a wicked sense of irony.” The creative spark that we search for so diligently, often doesn’t show up until we let go. This second stage, the part where the idea hits, is too often recognized as the important moment. However, without the impasse or boredom moment, the flash of brilliance will remain in hiding. Like the proverbial watched pot, our brains hit the boiling point when we don’t try to force it.

Are you listening?

So what actually happens in the brain just before the moment of insight? Scientists report that, right before a great idea hits, the brain is washed by alpha waves emanating from its right hemisphere. The exact function of the alpha waves is unknown, but we do know how to bring them on. Distractions to one’s focus, or relaxing activities like a walk, a warm shower, even a simple board game, will get the alpha waves pumping.

It seems that when our minds are at ease — when the alpha waves are saturating our brain — we are more likely to direct our attention inward toward the stream of connections we retain in the right hemisphere. When we are diligently focused, our attention is outward toward the details of the problem we are trying to solve.

Lehrer concludes: “It’s not until we’re being massaged by warm water, unable to check our email, that we’re finally able to hear the quiet voices in the backs of our heads telling us about the insight. The answers have been there all along — we just weren’t listening.”

As parents, we can help our children ignite these moments of insight for themselves by giving them space to be children and not rush them into adulthood; by not scheduling every moment of their lives; by giving them time for free play; and, perhaps most importantly, by allowing ourselves some time for flashes of brilliance. As Einstein said, “Creativity is the residue of wasting time.”

Imagine That!

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