Have You Experienced "Eureka" Moments?
The so-called "eureka" moment is the culmination of a pre-conscious process.
Posted Sep 29, 2017
The French physician and scientist Louis Pasteur advised, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
Some of the most powerful ideas in the history of science came to their inventors while they were daydreaming.
The so-called "eureka" moment, or the "aha" experience, is the culmination of a pre-conscious process known as incubation.
Incubation is a stage in which the thinker has temporarily set aside his or her attempts to solve a problem, and has turned to other thoughts. But behind the curtain of consciousness, the brain's many computers are always at work.
Most of us have had the eureka experience from time to time – that flash of insight that suddenly explains something, or shows us how to solve a problem.
The most notorious example of Isaac Newton and the apple, which might or might not have actually occurred, illustrates the process. According to legend, Newton had left London and the university to stay at his parents' farm in the English countryside. While sitting under a tree on a pleasant day, he suddenly conceived of the phenomenon of gravity, as a powerful force of nature. Legend has it that he saw an apple fall from a tree, and became fascinated with the simple idea that everything fell toward the earth. From there, he worked out the concept of gravity as one of the fundamental forces of nature.
Galileo, who left the planet in the same year that Newton arrived, had a similar daydreaming insight. While sitting quietly in a church, he absently watched a candelabra suspended from the ceiling, as it swung slowly back and forth in the slight breeze. The length of the swing increased and increased with the breeze, but he had a sudden realization: the period of the pendulum he was watching – the length of time needed to complete one full swing from end to end and back – seemed to stay the same.
On the longer swings, the candle moved faster, but the total swing time was constant. This led him to experiments that verified that the period of a pendulum depended on only one variable: the length of the chain or string holding it up. The weight of the suspended object made no difference.
In 1816, the French physician René Laennec got the idea for the stethoscope while watching boys at play. He was perplexed because he couldn't easily hear the heart sounds of one of his patients, an obese woman, by the usual method of putting his ear to her chest. The boys were playing with a length of pipe; one would whisper into the end of the pipe and the other would try to hear it from the other end.
Laennec suddenly visualized a similar device for listening to the internal sounds of the patient. He quickly devised a number of variations on the design, and evolved what became the modern stethoscope.
And in 1865, the Austrian scientist Friedrich August Kekulé von Stradonitz reportedly figured out the structure of the benzene molecule, while dozing beside his fireplace. In his half-dream state, he saw a vivid image of a snake biting its own tail. He realized that the molecule would have to be arranged as a closed hexagon, with carbon atoms at each of the six points.
The next time you're stuck on a problem or decision, you might try incubating it. Dwell on it for a while, and then turn your attention to other things. Maybe a good idea will come to you when you least expect it.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.