After months of intense mathematical exercises, Albert Einstein decided to give himself a break from the work one night and let his imagination wander about the concepts of space and time, say Guenther Knoblich and Michael Oellinger in The Eureka Moment written for Scientific America. In the article, they describe how Albert Einstein finally hit on the core idea underlying his famous theory of relativity: “Various images came to mind prompting him to try a thought experiment: If two bolts of lightning struck the front and back of a moving train at the same time, would an observer standing beside the track and an observer standing on the moving train see the strikes as simultaneous? The answer, in short, was no. The floodgates in Einsteins mind opened, and he laid down an ingenious description of the universe. With his sudden insight, Einstein turned our conceptions of time and space inside out.”
Einstein believed in the power of ‘unclamping’ his prefrontal cortex and allowing his cerebral mind to wander. Also known as daydreaming, it’s something our parents and school teachers told us to ‘stop doing and pay attention.’ Evidently studies now show that they shouldn’t have or at least they should have encouraged us at times to intentionally allow our mind to wonder. Because some of the greatest innovations and discoveries have occurred when people have allowed their mind to wonder. As T.E. Lawrence wrote: “All people dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.”
In my article: Why the most successful disruptors dream by day I wrote about the power and importance of allowing your mind to wonder. Here’s the thing, we’ve all had sudden, smart insights. These ‘Aha’ moments typically happen when we are daydreaming. Of course, if you are a brain surgeon or air-traffic controller, we do not want you to be a daydreamer, well at least not when you are ‘on the job.’ But there are times when we all benefit from daydreaming.
Neuroscientists now tell us that allowing our minds to wonder can actually form new brain pathways and develop our ability to solve complex problems. There are two types of daydreaming, unintentional and intentional. It’s the intentional version of allowing our mind to wonder that can so powerful. Companies like Google and Apple understand this and it’s why they have foosball tables, and nap stations. These novel work environments, which many other companies try and copy, but then fail to encourage daydreaming, are effective because they are actually designed to allow staff to switch off and allow their minds to wonder.
Now we do a lot of daydreaming. According to the boffins, Brit workers spent on average four weeks a year daydreaming at work. So, if we do so much daydreaming and it can have an impact on productivity – both negatively and positively – a good question would be: How can we conjure these ‘aha’ moments intentionally so that we maximise the benefits? Here are our tips to daydreaming.
Step One: Immerse yourself in your subject. Einstein cracked his theory of relativity because he’d spend hours deep diving into the current theory and understanding the problem completely. If you half-bake a cake you are going to get half-baked results, so explore by reading and consulting widely. When your brain wonders along new pathways seeking creative insights, you want it to be taking the best and most relevant information with it.
Step Two: Put your phone down, disconnect from the digital world. We daydream when we get bored, keeping your mind engaged and switched on with what cute cats are doing on YouTube or incoming emails and texts does not allow you to clock off enough to unclamp your prefrontal cortex.
Step Three: Find an activity that actively allows you to zone out. One of my clients is a leading food and life-science company. Their scientist, Ingmar Wester, had been battling for many years with developing a natural product that would lower cholesterol. The complex problem he faced was how to extract in sufficient quantities stanols. Plant stanols, a naturally occurring chemical compound, was already known to have massive benefits in lowering cholesterol but no one have figured out how to commercially extract enough of the stuff. Wester had a ground-breaking idea while taking time out to play football with his daughter. Today, Benecol, the product he developed from his innovative mind wondering idea, is recognised as a globally trusted brand enjoyed by millions of people. So find activities where you allow yourself to ‘zone-out.’ Maybe it’s running, cycling or playing with your children. Perhaps it’s going for a long walk or visiting your mother-in-law. Whatever it is do it often with the intention of allowing your mind to wonder.
Step Four: Meditate. If you are not the active type focused meditation is an excellent way to unclamp your mind and letting ideas that are buried in your subconscious mind to surface into the light of your conscious mind where you can access them intellectually.
Step Five: Focus your thoughts on the future: Imagine you have cracked your challenge, you have arrived at your quest’s destination. What does it look and feel like, how are people responding. Studies indicate that clocking out and thinking of the future has some evolutionary benefit. It helps us get a clear sense of what we want, allowing us to make serious plans to achieve our goals. Researchers also discovered that people who zone out to focus on the future have higher working memories.
Step Six – Let your mind explore intellectual reveries. Often when we are reading a book, for example, we may suddenly be reminded of another novel, or something we once heard as our mind begins to trail off. Now most of the time, because we have been trained to do so at school etc. we interject and cut off this trail. Learn to resist this temptation and instead of cutting it off, allow your mind to pursue literary connection between different works. Zoning out while reading may allow you to make a connection you would otherwise miss.
Step Seven: Take mental vacations. Take holidays where you force yourself to take a complete break. Go somewhere where there is no Wi-Fi or mobile reception. Granted this is becoming more and more difficult to do, so just be brave and leave the laptop and work mobile phone at home. Another way to take a mental vacation is to visit a place that conjures wonderful memories or sensations. Visit a favourite childhood vacation spot, for example. Every year I try to take a day trip to Tintern Abbey, a ruined monastic settlement on the River Wye in Wales. It is an immensely peaceful setting where I enjoy taking photographs and as I do my mind connects with disparate ideas. It is often on my drive home where I have my most inspired ideas. In fact, eight years ago on a trip to Tintern my mind wondered and explored becoming a futurist and public speaker. Now up to that stage becoming a public speaker is something I never would have dared do. But by allowing my mind to wonder and imagine the benefits I convinced myself to experiment with something which today I love doing.
There is no doubt that “daydreaming and downtime can lead to solutions for difficult scientific problems and provide inspiration for creative works. Some of history’s best-known scientific and literary achievements grew out of such mental meandering” says Scientific America Eager to explore more and be inspired by the powers of a wondering mind? Why not read their excellent article: Delivered in a Daydream: 7 Great Achievements That Arose from a Wandering Mind or you can click on the more button to continue reading below
Delivered in a Daydream: 7 Great Achievements That Arose from a Wandering Mind by Scientific America
Mental Blizzard Turkish novelist and 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk found inspiration from daydreams for works such as Snow (2004, Knopf). In a speech titled “the Implied Author” that Pamuk gave when he received the Puterbaugh literary prize in 2006 , Pamuk declared: “I long for inspiration to come to me (as poems did to Coleridge —and to Ka, Snow’s hero) in dramatic ways, preferably in scenes and situations that might sit well in a novel. If I wait patiently and attentively, my dream comes true. To write a novel is to be open to these desires, winds and inspirations, and also to the dark recesses of our minds and their moments of mist and stillness. For what is a novel but a story that fills its sails with these winds, that answers and builds upon inspirations that blow in from unknown quarters, and seizes upon all the daydreams we’ve invented for our diversion, bringing them together into a meaningful whole
Mind-Wandering Heights As children in the 1820s the novelists Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë, along with their brother, Branwell, created two make-believe realms called Gondal and Angria in their parsonage on the English Yorkshire moors. Angria, a confederacy of states, teemed with both fashionable aristocrats and lower-class citizens who frequented inns and taverns and similar locales. In various plots Angria would become enmeshed in war, revolution and other dramatic events. In Gondal, Emily and Anne’s secret state, warfare and politics alternated with romantic intrigues. Gondal’s women were more assertive and resourceful than those of Angria, in which passive beauties pined for their lovers. These two fantasy lands, about which the children wrote in several hundred matchbox-size books, planted the mental seeds for the novels the sisters would write as adults. These masterpieces included (Charlotte), Wuthering Heights (Emily) and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Highway Hunch Mixing free-thinking into a recipe of science has led to modern-day revelations as well. One Friday night in 1983 Kary Mullis, then a chemist at Cetus Corp., was driving on California Highway 128 from Berkeley to Mendocino where he had a weekend cabin in the woods. He was blithely contemplating the construction of the DNA molecule, out of nucleotides, the building blocks of this molecule of life. At milepost 46.58, he came up with an idea for duplicating DNA fragments in unlimited quantities within a chemical soup of nucleotides, DNA-synthesizing enzymes and other molecular ingredients. Previously, DNA strips could only be made in living cells, laboriously, and in small amounts. Mullis called the technique that grew from his thoughts the polymerase chain reaction or PCR. As a result of his invention, Mullis shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Recalling his driving stints, Mullis said in an interview, “that’s when I did most of my thinking….because day-to-day life at the lab doesn’t allow a lot of time.” HY
Silver Lining? Around B.C. 200 the king of the Sicilian seaport city Syracuse posed a puzzle for the Greek mathematician Archimedes. The king had been given a crown that was supposed to be pure gold, but he suspected that the goldsmith had added some silver. Archimedes was to determine, without melting down the crown, whether the king’s suspicions were well founded. Archimedes first studied the problem diligently, testing numerous hypotheses, but could not solve it. So he decided to take a break, asking his servant to draw a bath. As he settled into the tub, the water level rose. Archimedes then realized that the same effect could be used to determine the volume of the crown. He leapt up and ran out into the street naked. “Eureka!” he shouted. He had recognized that equivalent weights of different substances, such as silver and gold, occupy different volumes. By observing the volume of water the crown displaced— perhaps as compared with a gold reference sample of the same weight—he could thus determine whether it also contained a less dense metal such as silver. As it turned out, the king was right to be doubtful: Archimedes’ test revealed that silver was present
Carbon Copies The daydream coalesced later into Kekulé’s theory of molecular structure. It solved the problem of five carbons and 12 hydrogens in the following way, using the knowledge that each carbon atom can link to four other atoms in creating a compound. These three compounds create three different substances simply by virtue of structure:
Atomic Tango August Kekulé von Stradonitz, who helped found structural organic chemistry in the mid-1800s, is known for a famous reverie that revealed the arrangement of atoms in a molecule. Kekulé had long wondered about this arrangement—and in particular he wanted to know how two molecules that were composed of the same atoms—say five carbons and 12 hydrogens—could be different substances, a blowing agent, say, or an ingredient in toothpaste. The answer came to him while riding home one evening on a horse-drawn “bus”. Years later, Kekulé described it this way, according to the book, Eurekas and Euphorias: the Oxford scientific anecdotes by Walter Bruno Gratzer (Oxford University Press, 2002), “I fell into a reverie, and lo, the atoms were gamboling before my eyes…. I saw how, frequently, two smaller atoms united to form a pair; how a larger one embraced the two smaller ones; how still larger ones kept hold of three or even four of the smaller; whilst the whole kept whirling in a giddy dance…”
Explosive Insight Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard first considered the notion of converting mass into energy after he had read that his colleague Ernest Rutherford had discounted the possibility in a 1934 lecture. Then a few weeks later, while crossing a London street, Szilard suddenly realized that if there were an element whose nucleus, when hit by a neutron, would split into two parts and release two of its neutrons, those neutrons could split other nearby atoms. This would lead to a “chain reaction” in which billions of atoms could be split in millionths of a second. And so Szilard came up with one of the core ideas behind nuclear fission, which led to atomic bombs and reactors
Relativity Revelation Albert Einstein’s unleashed imagination was an important ingredient to his success. After months of intense mathematical exercises he homed in on the gist of his special theory of relativity while taking a break from his work “and let his imagination wander about the concepts of space and time,” wrote Guenther Knoblich and Michael Oellinger in the October 2006 Scientific American MIND mental meanderings Einstein imagined two bolts of lightning striking the front and back of a moving train at the same instant. He realized that those strikes would not seem simultaneous to a person standing next to the track even if they did seem so to an individual on the moving train. Einstein described his moment of insight in 1924: “After seven years of reflection in vain [1898 to 1905] the solution came to me suddenly with the thought that our concepts and laws of space and time can only claim validity insofar as they stand in a clear relation to our experiences; and that experience could very well lead to the alteration of these concepts and laws.”