The ‘Eureka!’-myth

Sense and nonsense about spontanious idea generation

Everyone knows the Greek mathematician Archimedes’ story, who had this amazing insight when he took a bath and came up with Archimedes' law because of that experience. Afterwards, Archimedes jumped out of his bath, ran on the street naked, yelling "Eureka, Eureka!" ("I have found it!") Since then, we use that expression when someone has solved a difficult problem.


Everyone Archimedes

Archimedes' story feels very familiar to most of us. That moment when the solution to a complex problem just presents itself to you. Everyone has experienced it before. For most people, it feels like an epiphany, being struck by a lightning bolt. One moment, there's absolutely nothing and the next, you see the whole solution. It seems as if it came out of thin air. Moreover, the idea seems like a real plan: everything drawn up to a tee.


This experience actually makes us think that a moment of inspiration is something magical: a divine hunch, the aha-erlebnis, something we cannot explain and for which we must show humble respect. Otherwise, you could break the magic… Unfortunately, (or rather fortunately) this is a huge misconception.

The missing link

As a result, this misconception leads to the fact that most innovation processes do not spend a lot of attention on coming up with original ideas. Often, people assume there should be an idea first, and that you can work on it afterwards: developing, prototyping, funnelling, testing, etc.

Just look at the most common processes that have been used for innovation. One by one, they start with gathering the existing ideas. Where do they come from? From the Eureka-cloud? The idea-cauliflower?... No one knows. And that is a pity, because that is how a lot of companies often miss out on some rock-solid, groundbreaking ideas.

All of a sudden, the plan, on which our brain has pondered for hours, days, weeks, is clear and reveals itself in all of its glory. Aha! Eureka! We are geniuses!


What actually happened? Well, the spontaneous idea-process like the one Archimedes had, is mostly unconscious.

First and foremost, we are confronted with the problem, the question, the challenge. We think about it for a while, but when we do not get the answer immediately, we delay it temporarily. We put it on a to do-list, plan a meeting,… and forget about it.

At least, that's what we think. Because subconsciously, our brain is still dealing with the problem. While we are working, talking, eating, sporting and even sleeping! Without us knowing, our brain is looking for pieces that can solve the puzzle. It keeps all those puzzle pieces, until the puzzle is complete.

Psychology calls this phenomenon 'focus'. You can compare it to the moment you decide to buy a house. The next day, you drive to work and the world seems full of houses for sale. Those notices already hang there, you only did not see them because your subconscious focus was not interested in buying a house, but now it is. Your brain does the same thing when it is solving a problem. Suddenly, it finds pieces to the solution everywhere. Until it has enough information to create a manageable solution.

And BAM! That is the moment your unconscious process gets conscious again. All of a sudden, the plan, on which our brain has pondered for hours, days, weeks, is clear and reveals itself in all of its glory. Aha! Eureka! We are geniuses!


Aha NOW!

This unconscious, spontaneous idea-process has one big disadvantage: you never know in advance when your brain is ready puzzling. Nowadays, with very strict deadlines, fast changes and hyper fluidity, that is unacceptable.

What can you do then? Well, the first step is to optimise your own intrapersonal creativity. Thinking up a lot of original ideas that are at the same time achievable, is a skill. You can improve that skill by strengthening your associative ability, for example. That is how you make sure your spontaneous idea creation process runs as smooth as possible and you will have more and better ideas on your own.

When you want to do it even better, you can go a step further. This is what we do in business creativity, by turning the unconscious process, conscious. (think of phased processes like brainstorming, creative problem solving or design thinking) That way, you can decide when you have your aha-moment and you do not have to wait for that genius bright idea.

After all, every one of us is a genius and we can decide for ourselves when we activate that genius!

Pieter Daelman

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