In search of the “Aha” moment

It would certainly make my work easier if I had a magic formula to create the “aha” moments that help me write the perfect headline, refine a particularly difficult sentence, or find the unifying theme for a complex story.

But, alas, inspiration rarely comes on command.  Instead, it sneaks up when least expected, on a walk, in the shower, or in the middle of the night —  and typically when there’s no pencil or paper available.

I’ve always found the unpredictability of creative thinking and problem solving to be intriguing.  Which is why a recent Wall Street Journal article on “Tactics to Spark Creativity” got my attention.  In the piece, Sue Shellenbarger makes the case that “the best route to an ‘aha moment’ involves stepping away from the grindstone—whether it’s taking a daydream break, belting back a drink or two or simply gazing at something green.”

Simple ways to spark creativity

I find the green thing a bit far-fetched, but I did check out some of the other academic studies she cited, plus a few others that popped up in my search.  And to my delight, they all suggest that best creativity generating activities may be those where we give ourselves permission to relax and “chill-out.”  Among them:

Walk away from the problem to do simple, routine tasks.

Jonathan Schooler, a psychology professor at the University of California co-authored a 2012 study (featured in Psychological Science) that found when students were given a break between two attempts to tackle the same problem, those who had done a simple, boring task during the break had more creative ideas than those who were assigned a tough cognitive puzzle, or those who rested.

Wait until you’re tired or fatigued — and let your mind wander.

“Surprisingly, fatigue may boost creative powers.” says a 2011 study in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. According to the study’s author, Mareike Wieth, assistant professor of psychological sciences at Albion College, “Fatigue, may allow the mind to wander more freely to explore alternative solutions.” When study participants were asked to solve a series of two types of problems, requiring either analytical or novel thinking, their performance on the second type was best at non-peak times of day—in the evening for morning people, and in the morning for night owls.

–Have a cocktail.

This one surprised me, but a recent study by psychologist Jennifer Wiley at the University of Illinois (reported in Consciousness and Cognition) confirmed that moderate drinking can relax inhibitions in a way that seems to let the mind range across a wider set of possible connections.

According to the report, Wiley and her colleagues found that intoxicated individuals solved more creative word problems, and in less time, than their sober counterparts. “Interestingly, people who drank also felt that their performance was more likely to come as a sudden insight, the answer came all at once, in an “Aha!” moment of illumination.”

Shellenbarger ‘s WSJ piece offers up the example of  S. Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer of Grey New York as proof. An ad executive with many successful campaigns, Myhren says he  wrote some of the iconic E*Trade talking-baby scripts while working alone late at night in his office, sipping a little Oban whiskey and listening to Radiohead on his iPod.

So it looks like an evening glass of wine (or two) may have creative benefits. (I may need to do my own empirical research on that.)


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