People love to tell stories, so it’s no wonder that most describe how ideas happen as an epiphany, a brainstorm or “Eureka!” moment, a brilliant flash of insight that seems like a “bolt from above.”
Even the famous scientist Charles Darwin attributes his theory of natural selection to one such moment, and even described the moment in his autobiography.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t actually the case.
Another scientist reviewed Darwin’s massive collection of notebooks that he kept through all of his studies, and found that Darwin had developed the idea of natural selection several months prior to his epiphany moment. He just had not combined all those ideas into his theory until then.
That shows, according to Steven Johnson in his TED talk, how ideas come more from a network than a spark. He even refers to it more as “The Slow Hunch” than a brainstorm. Your ideas come from a lifetime of experiences, so let them take the time to stew in the back of your mind, and wait for a new configuration of neurons flowing in your brain to make the connection.
He also said that if you want the ideal environment for idea incubation, then look to the coffee and tea houses of 1650’s England. Here was a culture that drank alcohol with every meal because the water was bad, so when the tea and coffee houses sprung up people started switching from a depressant to a stimulant, and the conversations sparked amid the chaos.
That era is now referred to as the Age of Enlightenment.
Coincidence? Perhaps. There were many other societal changes occurring at the same time. But it certainly may have been the beginning of our cultural addiction to caffeine.
In a more recent example, Johnson talked about how scientists who spent all day in a lab actually made more mental connections at the weekly meeting with other scientists. If they had not had time to discuss their problems and observations with colleagues, they would not have made as many discoveries.
So, the next time you have the glimmerings of an idea, let your brain neurons munch on it for awhile. Share your thoughts with someone else and see if they can add something to it. Even trying to say it out loud can help you organize your thoughts.
Besides, bolts from above can be dangerous.