The Simple Way to Spark a Genius Idea.

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The Simple Way to Spark a Genius Idea.

Archimedes, the brilliant ancient Greek mathematician, had a problem. When his king asked him if his crown was made of pure gold, or diluted with silver, he couldn’t solve it. No one could. So he took a break to relax in one of the public bathhouses of Syracuse.

As he soaked in the hot water, enjoying the moment, he noticed his body displaced water — a volume equal to his body’s weight. Suddenly, something clicked: he realized he could measure the density. By sinking the crown and an equal bar of pure gold in water, he could tell if it was watered-down if it displaced less water.

Stunned by his sudden insight, Archimedes leaped out of the bath and ran stark naked through the streets, shouting “Eureka!” — the Greek word for “I found it.” He had the first “A-ha!” moment of recorded history, but he was by no means the last. The history of science, arts and innovation abounds with tales of “Eureka!”

Isaac Newton’s apple, which supposedly hit the English physicist on the head to give him the idea for gravity, is one of the most legendary a-ha moments. But plenty of less famous ones led to great, life-changing inventions. In 1902, Willis Carrier, for example, came up with the idea of air conditioning as he watched fog roll in across the train tracks one evening.

The “Eureka!” moment is one of the Holy Grails of creativity and innovation, and scientists, inventors and artists chase after that a-ha in the hopes of being struck by lightning. But by nature, these flashes of brilliance are unpredictable and elusive. They come at strange, mundane moments: in the shower, running a mile or mowing the lawn. With our modern understanding of neuroscience, we’re a little closer in figuring out the mysterious workings of brilliance — though it’s not as sudden, unpredictable or elusive as we’d think.

How should we live and work to best develop and nurture these moments of brilliance in our lives? The ancient Greeks believed creativity came from the Nine Muses, divine goddesses of music, poetry and science, among others, who bestowed insight upon unsuspecting yet hard-working mortals.

The example of Archimedes is a little closer to how we can create our own “Eureka!” moment. Like him, we have to devote hours of thought into researching and grappling with an issue. But then, we have to be willing to walk away from the problem, clear our heads — and leave room for that unexpected twist that is the key to “A-ha!”

Archimedes may have worked in ancient Greece, but he was onto the importance of breaks when it comes to stimulating creativity. Taking breaks from periods of focus and concentration — in the form of exercise, rest or even baths — are key in creating flashes of insight. According to Harvard Business Review, psychologists discovered brainstorming groups who were given a break to work on unrelated tasks generated the most ideas, while those given no break came up with the least.

Researchers say taking breaks create a pattern of “incubation” that is key to insight. We devote hours of intense study to a problem, but when we step away and take our conscious minds from the problem, parts of the brain are still processing the issue in the background, allowing them to “incubate” the question. It’s often during these periods that the missing piece or ingredient comes to us, like a flash from the gods.

So after a period of focus, get up to stretch. Step outside, and take a brief walk. You might come back with a fresh way of looking at the problem — or if you’re lucky, an insight that gives rise to an invention that will change the landscape of the world.

That was the case for Philo Farnsworth, inventor of the first all-electronic television. Born in a log cabin in Indian Creek, Utah in 1906, he grew up a Mormon farm boy interested in science and idolizing Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. He dreamed of sending pictures over the air, much like how sound was broadcast over airwaves to the radio. But converting images for broadcast was a much trickier prospect, and the problem bedeviled experienced, educated inventors, scientists and engineers for ages.

In 1921, as a 14-year-old Farnsworth was plowing the fields, pushing equipment back and forth from one row to the next, he came up with an idea. Looking down at the tracks created by his plowing, he realized electrons could use a similar line-by-line, back-and-forth motion to create a picture on a screen.

Five years later, he convinced two businessmen in California to fund a working prototype, and his gamble paid off: in 1927, he got his first signal on a screen. A year later, he expanded that signal into a whole image the size of a postage stamp. At 22, Farnworth had created the first working electronic television — but the key innovation in solving the problem came from the boring, physical chore of plowing farmland.

The neuroscience of “A-ha!” seems to reflect that pattern of incubation and release. When we’re in problem-solving mode, we use mostly our brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for decision-making. But during “a-ha!” mode, according to Northwestern University, a small part of the right lobe — called the temporal lobe — lights up when we experience creative insight.

Our right temporal lobe starts to buzz with low-frequency brain waves about 1.5 seconds before an a-ha moment, and then, surges with sudden high-frequency brain waves. One-third of a second later, after this storm of neural activity, we have the eureka moment.

Researchers think much of the eureka-related activity happens in the right temporal lobe because of its role in drawing together distantly related pieces of information, which give another clue in engineering our eureka moments. It’s not enough to take a break and let our minds incubate data — it’s important to draw upon sources of knowledge and experience outside the problem at hand, grafting insights from one area into another.

Legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel, for example, helped create modern sportswear by looking beyond existing ideas of how women should dress. In her youth, she cavorted with boyfriends on yachts and horseback riding expeditions, and observed how freeing menswear designs were for the body, at a time when women wore constricting corsets and heavy, padded skirts.

Setting up her fledgling fashion business, she decided to make her own versions of womenswear, making simple, practical designs out of inexpensive yet durable jersey, a fabric then used primarily for men’s underwear. While slightly scandalous to the mainstream, her designs resonated with increasingly independent women, laying the foundation for an enduring fashion empire. More importantly, Chanel helped to create the idea of sportswear for everyday life, making it acceptable for people to wear casual, relaxed clothing in public.

How does this apply to our lives? Experts say it’s crucial that creatives explore outside interests and hobbies. Exercising other skills that stimulates different parts of the brain not only provides relief and fun, but can help apply insights from one field to another.

Apple’s chief of design, Jony Ive, for example, is known for his interests in architecture, furniture design and cars, which influence his designs for Apple products. One of his key insights in designing the iconic iMac desktop computer came from looking at the object as a piece of furniture, and not just a monitor and keyboard.

Beyond taking breaks to incubate, and developing outside interests, one last part to creating our eureka moment is the use our imagination when we’re trying to solve the problem. It’s easy to get into the same “ruts” when it comes to approaching an issue, but we have to consciously shake ourselves of complacency. Only then, will we see possibilities that might solve an impasse.

Legendary physicist Albert Einstein was an ideal example of approaching problems with a sense of fun and imagination. He was well-known for his playful, sometimes odd “thought experiments,” where he wrestled with problems using visualization.

His own a-ha moment about the theory of relativity came not from tooling around with mathematics, but from his own imaginings. Like other physicists, he had long been perplexed by certain incompatibilities in physics. Isaac Newton’s theories explained the universe one way, but could not account for the constant speed of light, as calculated by physicist James Clerk Maxwell. Einstein was faced with an intellectual crisis: Newton and Maxwell’s separate calculations — the two pillars of modern physics — were incompatible. Only one could be right, and whichever theory was correct would require scientists to rethink what they knew of physics.

According to PBS, Einstein hammered away at the problem, to the point where he had almost given up. But then, one night, he remembered riding in a streetcar in Bern, Switzerland, where he lived, and looking back at the clock tower that dominated the city center. What if his streetcar raced away from the clock tower at the speed of light? He realized the clock tower would look like it had stopped from his perspective, but the clock within the streetcar would seem to beat normally.

Suddenly, Einstein realized: time itself is relative, beating differently throughout the universe depending on how fast we move. The faster we moved through space, the slower the rate of time. If we were a light beam — the fastest force in the universe — time would seem slower than for those of us here on earth.

As Einstein said, “A storm broke loose in my mind,” and the theory of relativity was born — a vital piece in reconciling a great schism in physics, which allowed both Newton and Maxwell to be correct. They just needed a missing ingredient to connect the two.

Racing a light beam wasn’t the only thought experiment Einstein indulged: among others, he imagined riding a light beam itself, which led him to the realization that space-time itself was curved, yet another key piece in his emerging theories. He also visualized how a house painter would fall, giving him key insights into the way gravity worked on bodies of different mass, as well. The result of his playful imagination was a series of “Eureka!” moments that changed our fundamental understanding of the universe.

While we may not reinvent a scientific discipline, it might help us to look at problems from a different perspective, or imagine them in a different context, loosening ourselves from the unconscious ruts we might have fallen into. A writer, for example, can imagine telling the story from a different character’s view, or a developer might imagine different customers using their software.

Creating our version of Einstein’s “thought experiments” might then loosen the storms in our mind, leading us to that much longed-for flash of insight.

But some take issue to the idea of a eureka moment, saying the key to creativity is actually collaboration and conversation. Instead of a sudden moment, we have what business writer Steven Johnson calls a “slow hunch,” born of years of study, conversation and contemplation.

According to his line of thinking, good ideas happen in networks and communities. So to get to them, we have to be willing to discuss with others, and combine, repurpose and explore as many rival and related ideas as possible.

That dissenting idea falls into alignment when we dissect the anatomy of a eureka moment — the period of study actually precedes the period of rest and incubation. Einstein’s famous thought experiment, for example, wouldn’t have happened without years of study and dialogue with fellow scientists. But it wouldn’t have taken off in his mind without his creative visualization. We build enough mass to create momentum, but the “a-ha” is the catalyst to push it into groundbreaking action.

In the end, a-ha moments themselves make for iconic, exciting stories, but the flashy moment of insight is always preceded by hard work and study. Even Isaac Newton’s own legendary moment reveals a more prosaic, less glamorous truth.

As kids, we learned Newton came up with the idea for gravity when he was hit on the head by a falling apple. But historical evidence shows that his legend of the apple may not have happened exactly as we picture it. And according to London’s Royal Society, Newton was merely relaxing from his studies under the shade of an apple tree. He happened to watch the fruit falling and wondered why the apple always fell to the ground.

Still, he was able to connect one seemingly unrelated phenomenon — a falling apple — to the mechanics of the solar system. His eureka moment changed our understanding of the universe, and the field of physics would never be the same.

Our eureka moments may not have the same impact, but like Newton and Einstein, we have to prepare and work for a-ha. It’s less serendipitous than a falling apple, but no less fulfilling.

This post is sponsored by Dimension Data.

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