The best solutions to problems sometimes come about suddenly and unexpectedly when people aren’t actively working on their issues.
Psychologists call this phenomenon “incubation”—a brief shift away from a problem that could trigger a flash of insight as if from no additional effort. [Incidentally, “incubation” is very much a term in vogue during the current epidemic.]
Abundant anecdotes evoke creative breakthroughs made when inventors took breaks from working on their problems after many failed attempts to solve them.
‘Eureka Moments’ happen all the time
Perhaps the best-known case in point of incubation is that of the ancient Greek polymath Archimedes.
It’s plausible that Archimedes realized that he could investigate the suspected adulteration of Hieron II’s votive crown (“corona” in Italian/Latin, incidentally) by weighing it in water. The legend doesn’t appear in any of Archimedes’s known works.
That Archimedes leaped out from the bath in which he purportedly got the idea and ran home unclothed is likely a popular embellishment. The Roman architect Vitruvius first mentioned this spin to the story some 200 years after the supposed event:
[Archimedes] happened to go to the bath, and on getting into a tub observed that the more his body sank into it, the more water ran out over the tub. As this pointed out the way to explain the case in question, he jumped out of the tub and rushed home naked, crying with a loud voice that he had found what he was seeking; for he as he ran he shouted repeatedly in Greek, “Heúrēka, heúrēka.” meaning “I have found (it,) I have found (it.)
Millennia later, the scientific world is replete with the exclamation. In fact, the prospectors of California’s gold rush were so keen on the expression that it has appeared on the state seal since 1849, becoming the state’s motto in 1963.
Idea for Impact: To overcome a mental block, take your mind off the problem
After a period of conscious work, if you’ve reached an impasse that is blocking (“fixation”) your awareness of the solution to a problem, set it aside.
Remove yourself from the task. Take your mind off the problem. Go for a run, play with your dog, play an instrument, indulge in your favorite video game, take a shower, or embark on some optimally distracting hobby.
Creativity involves putting old ideas together in new ways. Your mind may be shuffling information at all times, even when you’re not conscious of it. You may just hit upon a solution during either your time away or when you return to the problem after the incubation period.