A Formula for Insight
“I can’t wait to hear from myself.” — Hope Swann
This juicy bit of wisdom spilled out of my friend’s unconscious during lunch the other day. We laughed, and after that the conversation wove back and forth between those moments when we absolutely know the next step to take, when that aha! moment occurs, that brilliant insight — and those times when nothing appears, not even a clue. I shared a formula with her, garnered from Jonah Lehrer’s article, ”The Eureka Hunt”: Attention + Hitting the Wall + Relaxation = Insight.
Hope knew that it would come from within herself. I think she was 80% there with that knowledge. Insight is embedded in experiences, ideas, creative projects, jobs, relationships, powerful forward leaps, just as powerful backward tumbles, and the curious unknown—all the golden moments that we carry around from a life lived fully. Insight is born from these connected moments, common threads that have been gestating in the rich, connective environment of the brain, just waiting to be rearranged into that oh-so-yearned-for insight.
In his article, Lehrer describes just how the brain works during the search for insight. There are several stages. First attention is gathered and focused on a solution. Secondly, there is a stalemate, some sort of block where the answer seems to drift further and further away. Thoughts just hit the wall and bounce back, insight-less.
It is here that Hope could take her wise sentence, put it in her pocket and go for a walk, a swim, or some other diversionary activity—attention has to relax and take a break from the search for an answer. Toss all ‘shoulds’ and ‘musts’ into the bushes, and move on. Now I know why my own insights occur in the shower, while swimming, on long walks or while quietly resting, and why, in the photo above, the laughing Buddha, the card with the Chinese character for ‘silence’, and the stone and sand dollar sit on my desk, an altar to relaxation.
While relaxing, our attention is diverted, yet the brain is working hard and fast, searching through trillions of connections until suddenly, a brand-new connection is made. Aha! We light up with the insight as if we’ve known it all along, and just couldn’t find it. What’s fascinating is that if one of these steps is taken out of the equation, an insight doesn’t manifest. There is always that feeling of the answer slipping away. There is always the need to relax.