Letting Your Subconscious Solve the Problem

by Site Author

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In 1861, August Kekulé, a German chemist, was trying to solve a difficult problem. For years, chemists had known the formula for benzene: 6 carbon atoms and 6 hydrogen atoms. But the structure of the molecule remained a puzzle.

Kekulé thought deeply about the problem. And then one evening, he sat down after a long day at work and let his mind wander. Eventually, his daydreams led to an image of a snake biting its own tail. And suddenly, the structure of benzene came to him. The molecule is circular.

Kekulé’s potentially apocryphal story has since become one of the most famous examples of a Eureka moment. Even if Kekulé embellished the story, there exists plenty of anecdotal evidence that other researchers reached key insights in a similar way. They thought deeply about a problem, and then their subconscious made important connections.

Motivated by stories like Kekulé’s, Richard Hamming gave the following advice to young researchers. The mathematician made these comments in a famous talk called “You and Your Research” at Bell Labs:

Everybody who has studied creativity is driven finally to saying, “creativity comes out of your subconscious.” Somehow, suddenly, there it is. It just appears. Well, we know very little about the subconscious; but one thing you are pretty well aware of is that your dreams also come out of your subconscious. And you’re aware your dreams are, to a fair extent, a reworking of the experiences of the day. If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer. For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention – you keep your thoughts on the problem. Keep your subconscious starved so it has to work on your problem, so you can sleep peacefully and get the answer in the morning, free.

I’m not a top-notch researcher, but I have worked with top-notch researchers: two Nobel prize winners, and two researchers who will almost certainly be awarded the Nobel one day. One pattern I’ve noticed is that those people care deeply about their research. One Nobel prize winner I worked for as an undergraduate was obsessed with whatever paper was currently on his desk. Research was all he did and all that mattered to him.

That kind of obsession isn’t healthy. But Hemming’s advice describes one benefit of the obsession—a benefit, at least, in terms of research productivity. When you are obsessed, your subconscious has no choice but to pitch in.