When Do Ideas Arrive?

by Site Author

Nancy Andreasen, a psychiatrist, writes in the Atlantic Monthly about her research on creative geniuses and mental illness. A surprisingly large share of geniuses and their family members suffered from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

In the process of interviewing creative geniuses, she asks them about when they get their ideas. This is what she found.

Almost all of my subjects confirmed that when eureka moments occur, they tend to be precipitated by long periods of preparation and incubation… “A lot of it happens when you are doing one thing and you’re not thinking about what your mind is doing,” one of the artists in my study told me. “I’m either watching television, I’m reading a book, and I make a connection … It may have nothing to do with what I am doing, but somehow or other you see something or hear something or do something, and it pops that connection together.”

Many subjects mentioned lighting on ideas while showering, driving, or exercising. One described a more unusual regimen involving an afternoon nap: “It’s during this nap that I get a lot of my work done. I find that when the ideas come to me, they come as I’m falling asleep, they come as I’m waking up, they come if I’m sitting in the tub. I don’t normally take baths … but sometimes I’ll just go in there and have a think.”

This pattern echoes advice that used to be given in the advertising industry. Creative directors at advertising companies were told to think about a problem deeply, and then to let the idea arrive on its own.

In 1939, James Webb Young, an advertising executive, wrote a book called A Technique for Producing Ideas. The book is still in print, over 70 years later.

Young argued that ideas are simply novel connections between old material. And to make those connections, Young recommends that people do two things. First, he recommends that they gather and digest all of the relevant material. As he put it:

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

Second, Young recommends that people let their unconscious minds work on finding the novel connections.

What you have to do… is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep… Drop the problem completely and turn to whatever stimulates your imagination and emotions. Listen to music, go to the theater or movies, read poetry or a detective story.

Hopefully, out of nowhere, the idea will appear.