The Frontal Cortex

Big Brain, Little Brain

One of the lessons of my article on insight (based largely on this research) is that mind wandering isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least if you want to tap into the obscure associations prevalent in the right hemisphere:

Schooler’s research has also led him to reconsider the bad reputation of mind wandering. Although we often complain that the brain is too easy to distract, Schooler believes that mind-wandering is an essential mental tool. “Just look at the history of science,” he says, “The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they’re doing something that has nothing to do with their research.” He cites the example of Henri Poincare, the 19th century mathematician, whose seminal insight into non-Euclidean geometry arrived while he was boarding a bus. “At the moment when I put my foot on the step [of the bus],” Poincare wrote, “the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it…I did not verify the idea; I should not have had the time, as, upon taking my seat in the omnibus, I went on with the conversation already commenced, but I felt a perfect certainty.” Poincare credited his sudden mathematical insight to “the work of the unconscious,” which continued to mull over the mathematics while he was preoccupied with unrelated activities, like talking to a friend on the bus. In his 1908 essay “Mathematical Creation,” Poincare insisted that the best way to think about complex problems is to immerse yourself in the problem until you hit an impasse. Then, when it seems that “nothing good has been accomplished,” you should find a way to distract yourself, preferably by going on a “walk or a journey”.(Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7-Up, “watch the entertainment” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

And now, via David Peak, comes this fascinating anecdote about Maya Angelou’s writing process. He notes that Angelou “used to play solitaire when she wrote her poetry, claiming that by using her ‘little brain,’ she was unlocking her ‘big brain.'” Other research suggests that distracting your conscious attention with puzzles is also an ideal way to make big, complicated decisions.

PS. In the comments, Celeste makes a great point:

It’s exactly why writing in poetic forms can be so effective and liberating. By focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions (syllabic, accentual, rhyme, etc.), you become open to ideas and themes you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.


  1. #1 Celeste
    July 31, 2008

    I think this is right on; it’s exactly why writing in poetic forms can be so effective and liberating. By focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions (syllabic, accentual, rhyme, etc.), you become open to ideas and themes you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

  2. #2 jb
    July 31, 2008

    You could call meditation, shamatha-vipasyana anyway, formal mind-wandering practice and activities like walking, mowing the lawn, sailing, and knitting that don’t require lots of left hemisphere input (at least once you have mastered them) informal. My husband who is a Hubble telescope astronomer gets his best ideas while showering or driving, he reported after read the New Yorker article. See Herbert Benson’s book “The Break-out Principle” for more of this.

  3. #3 GrayGaffer
    July 31, 2008

    Is there research into the exact mechanisms? I ask because as a generic meme this is not exactly new. I first encountered it through Edward de Bono’s book on lateral thinking back in 1970 or so. Pretty much all anecdotes of fundamental discoveries credit it – from Aristotle on. But I do not think there is a formal methodology for discovering and exploiting which particular method a given individual can use to enhance their personal ahas!

    My personal visualization of what happens derives from the old bubble chamber – bring a gas mixture to super saturation, then reduce the pressure and see what condenses out. Cute after the fact image, but the only predictive use (for me) is to immerse myself in a problem, explore all the boundaries of knowledge surrounding it, then fall asleep watching a sci-fi movie. The hole surrounded by the problem description becomes the description of the problem solution.

    Well, works for me. Sometimes. YMMV.

  4. #4 GrayGaffer
    July 31, 2008

    Archimedes, not Aristotle. Silly me (slaps forehead). Though I’m sure the latter had similar experiences.

  5. #5 David Rock
    July 31, 2008

    Agree completely with the big brain, small brain concept. This provides an insight into the active ingredient in the reports people have of where they have insights, which include: in the shower, running, driving, walking, in the bath, etc. These are repetitive activities that take a little attention but not all of it, that wont generate too much arousal, keeping the brain fairly quiet (alpha states). That would allow a subtle signal to be heard through the activities.

  6. #6 Michael Anes
    August 1, 2008

    The ideas in your post are intimately connected, I think, with research that younger people are better inhibitors of distracting and potentially irrelevant information. This research really took off with Hasher and Zacks, 1977, and has continued). Older people, with less effective inhibitory processes, often show influence from irrelevant items, a data pattern suggested (by other researchers) to be the mechanism behind enhanced creativity in elders.

  7. #7 Luci
    August 3, 2008

    Puzzles – yum. Try out artist Knut Mu�eller’s puzzle intense game worlds in Rhem, Rhem 2, Rhem 3. To navigate here, you’ll need to focus and remember details, but tie everything together with aha! flashes. Unlocked puzzles (and he has some diabolical ones) provide the pleasure of surprise rather than the tedium of mechanically worked out solutions.
    The left side may be filtering out some ‘irrelevant items’, but not intruding too much. You won’t catch the flashes if the doors and windows are locked down – nothing in, nothing out.
    What would we be without that powerful electro-chemical lump allowing us the gift of a full range of experience with textures, tones of voices, music, flavors etc. Relegating all that to some ‘little brain’ is an unacceptable limitation.
    The meaning of words is important, but without the breath of a creative mind and voice all we get is noise. Great writers all have voices- as all artists do- so do the lucky scientists. How often is luck given the credit for insight?

  8. #8 jb
    August 3, 2008

    There is another way to solve problems that cannot be properly called an insight because an insight into a situation requires that you have been working on the situation, you have it in mind, be it on a back burner. These other discoveries would seem to come about by accident, through luck. Take Edward Jenner for example who was told at age 19 in 1767 by a milkmaid that she would never have small pox because she’d had cow pox. He was apprenticed to a surgeon at the time. Later as a physician he decided to investigate this and in 1796 gave the first innoculation against more deadly smallpox to a young boy using cowpox. By luck the milk maid talked to him but he was paying attention. Pasteur who made similar discoveries said:”In the fields of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
    So it seems the mind is prepared by left hemisphere investigations before a break through and you often get an insight after relaxing. Or the preparation is just a matter of being attentively present for your experience and inquisitive. Maybe Jonah will write us another article about this type of discovery on down the line.

  9. #9 Rachael
    August 5, 2008

    Does this mean when I’m surfing food and science blogs instead of writing my dissertation, I’m actually doing work? Sweet 😀

    Celeste wrote:
    >I think this is right on; it’s exactly why writing in poetic forms can be so effective and liberating. By focusing on the puzzle of the restrictions (syllabic, accentual, rhyme, etc.), you become open to ideas and themes you wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

    What a lovely point. I wonder if this is true of visual art as well: a well-constructed photograph often contains visual cues to direct the eyes in a certain way, yet what is emotionally moving about good art is difficult to define. The source of emotional movement in work is often a subject that could be interpreted in many ways. Visual art can evoke sadness, passion or thrill due to specific placement of design elements — these emotions are not always due to inherent sadness, passion or thrill of the subject matter itself.

  10. #10 jb
    August 5, 2008

    I’d say no to Rachel above about cultivating insights while reading blogs or even daydreaming. Reading is a left hemisphere activity and not conducive to generating insights from the right brain so you want to be relaxed and doing something physical that does not require a lot of thought…walking, cleaning up the kitchen, driving, showering, playing ping pong, etc. and paying attention to the activity.

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