The Creative Eureka Experience

One of the most commonly talked about aspects of the creative process is the phenomenon of having sudden key insights after one has carefully considered the facts and, unable to find a solution, turned to other things – the famous “eureka” experience. There are many entertaining anecdotes revealing how famous creators experienced a sudden flash of insight, often while doing something quite ordinary. Because of three particularly well-known stories, one might call this the bed, bath, and bus scenario.

Portrait of René Descartes by Jan Baptist Weenix

Rene Descartes had one of his greatest eureka moments while lying in bed idly watching a fly hover in the air. (Image: public domain.)

It all began in Greece. Archimedes supposedly had his eureka moment while relaxing in the public baths and ran home naked shouting “eureka” (I found it) thereby giving the experience its name. The bit about running au naturel through the streets is probably Roman hokum, but it does vividly capture the sense of intense excitement that accompanies the unexpected breakthrough. Henri Poincaré had his seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry just as he boarded a bus. The idea seemed to come out of nowhere. The French mathematician attributed his insight to “unconscious work” and claimed an ability to ruminate on math problems while engaged in unrelated activities like chatting with a friend on a bus. Descartes suddenly envisioned his Cartesian co-ordinate system while lying in bed idly watching a fly hovering in the air. In all three cases, the insight followed considerable foundation-laying work that had as yet borne no fruit.

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