Eureka

I read something today which put a bit of theory behind something I’ve been trying for a few months now. If you have a complex problem to work out try forgetting about it.

I originally read a letter in the New Scientist written by a man who said when he had a particularly tricky problem to work out he would set himself a timescale of between 10 days and two weeks and then forget about it. Routinely the solution would come to him unbidden at some stage in the time he allowed.

Since being aware of it I’ve become conscious of the same phenomenon. The answer to things I’ve been thinking about or working on a lot often floats into my mind as I pass a particularly forbidding high rise housing estate about 25 minutes into my morning cycle ride.

Turns out Poincaré wrote about this many years ago describing four distinct stages in developing new insights or having breakthrough ideas. First think about it and study it a lot. Then hopefully get distracted or less fun, but as effective, get frustrated and lose hope of working it out. Then from nowhere Eureka. Finally verification of the validity of the insight and the develping confidence you are really onto something. Conscious thought, unconscious thought (or incubation), illumination and verification are the key stages.

Discovering it written down is a great relief – routinely forgetting about major work and life problems feels a bit uncomfortable without a bit of intellectual cover. The polymath Poincaré is a pretty good brain to pray in aid.

So the answer I’m increasingly persuaded, whether you are Archimedes or not is study, stop, forget it and bingo – eureka.

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