As many of us turn to summer writing projects, I wanted to mention The Eureka Hunt, an article by Jonah Lehrer that appeared in The New Yorker last July. Lehrer describes the work of scientists who are trying to understand how the human brain arrives at an insight. For me, the article validated a belief I’ve held for a long time: if I’m stuck, the best course of action is to temporarily stop trying to solve the problem. (Or, to put it differently, if I’ve hit an impasse, I should go for a bike ride, or to the grocery store, or do anything except continue to sit in front of my computer.)
Lehrer’s article defines an insight as an idea with several key characteristics. First, the idea occurs after a person has reached a mental block. Second, when the idea arrives it is accompanied by a strong certainty in its rightness. Third, a person can’t really explain how they arrived at the idea or from where it came.
Scientists are realizing that insights are products of the brain’s right hemisphere. When trying to solve a problem, there is at first real benefit to focus and singular attention. But if we get stuck, this focus can become problematic. Instead, the brain’s cortex needs to relax so that the right hemisphere of the brain can make the difficult associations that lead to insight. As Lehrer’s article put it, “Concentration, it seems, comes with the hidden cost of diminished creativity.” And the best part of all is that while a person relaxes or thinks about something else, the right hemisphere of their brain is still working to try to solve the problem. (So I’m not really just going on a walk or taking a nap; rather, I’m letting my right hemisphere do its job.)
The bottom line is that science supports the notion that sometimes if you just stop thinking about a difficult question, the answer will appear seemingly from out of the blue.
Unfortunately, however, nothing supports the notion that the best way to finish grading exams to simply stop when you grow tired of it . . . .