Have you ever struggled with hard problem and found that no matter how much you tried to figure it out, the answer just won’t come to you? This is an all-too-common problem for scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, novelists, musicians, and countless intellectuals alike. But as anyone who wrestles with creative/intellectual problems on the regular will tell you, the solution to a tough problem will often come at a time when they are not focused on the problem directly. To the contrary, solutions to problems often come when they are doing completely unrelated, like taking a walk or in the shower.
Charles Dickens, one of the greatest writers ever, wrote from 9am to 2pm everyday. Then, he would go for a long walk. Sometimes, he would walk for 30 miles and walk into the night. But he wasn’t crazy or eccentric because of these long walks. It turns out he just figured out how his brain work, way before science ever did with fMRI machines. This sort of downtime allowed him to let his ideas percolate and was just as important to his novels as the writing itself.
I previously read about this phenomenon in Barbara Oakley’s book A Mind for Numbers and subsequently started noticing it in everyday life. She called this “diffused mode thinking” as opposed to “focused mode thinking.” If you have read Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, diffused mode thinking would be analogous to System 1.
Jeff Brown’s book The Winner’s Brain points to a study in 2008 by University of Toronto’s Chen-Bo Zhong that showed this phenomenom via fMRI. They found that doing something habitual, like taking a walk, doing the dishes, or even taking a nap, enables you to subconsciously access peripheral information your brain may not actively consider during your “focused mode thinking.” Doing something other than focusing on the problem seems to allow your brain to access other information and see problems in a new way.
You can think of focused mode thinking as seeing the individual trees in the forest whereas diffused mode thinking is seeing the forest as a whole, and not just the individual trees. In other words, diffused mode thinking is thinking about the big picture, and thinking about generalities.
This sort of structured downtime is something we should all build into our everyday lives. These breaks are fundamentally important for us to function at a high level and solve creative and intellectual problems that require the brain to function optimally.
So the next time you are stuck on something intellectual and can’t quite get your head to wrap around it, go take a walk, do the dishes, do yoga, stretch, clean the house, etc. Just as long as it’s not watching television, Netflix, or Youtube videos—scientists think that watching video is too mind-numbing for the brain to generate anything insightful for your Eureka! moment.