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Where do great ideas come from?

Michael Georges didn’t run naked through the streets as Archimedes did almost 2,500 years ago, but the chemistry professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga did experience his own eureka moment in the early 1990s.

Georges discovered a specific way of constructing chains of molecules known as polymers. His technique allows scientists to build long polymer chains by adding monomers (single molecules), one after another. Because each new polymer has new chemical properties, the range of possible applications, from medicine to materials science, is virtually endless.

The process of discovery wasn’t easy. Georges was working at Xerox and many of his colleagues were certain he would fail. One of the company’s vice-presidents warned him that the project would be cancelled because it wasn’t producing results. “I said, ‘Just give me a few more months,'” Georges recalls. “Well, in February of 1992 we got it to work. And it was a big deal.” The discovery is now recognized as one of the great breakthroughs in polymer chemistry of recent years. “We were ecstatic,” he says.

Georges’ discovery represents the kind of creativity and drive for understanding that researchers strive for in just about every field, from the arts and humanities to business and medicine. A mythology has developed around these moments of enlightenment, and there are dozens of well-known examples from the history of science, literature, art and music. The most famous is still the story of Archimedes in ancient Greece. On seeing the water overflow as he settled into a much-needed bath, the mathematician deduced a way of calculating the density of an object regardless of its shape – and opted to share the news with the world without bothering to put his clothes on.

There is still a great deal that we don’t know about eureka moments, but scientists from a broad range of disciplines, including a number of researchers at the University of Toronto, are tackling the question from several directions. They’re trying to determine what conditions produce “aha” moments, how such insights are related to creative thinking and even what parts of the brain are involved. Through this research, the process of creative insight is gradually coming to light.

There are some aspects of the creative process that almost everyone agrees on. One is that the people who come up with great ideas come up with lots of ideas, period. These people are idea generators and better able than most to tell good ideas from bad ideas – or at least to make educated guesses as to which ideas are worth pursuing.

Georges is a good example of an idea generator. “Ideas pop into my head in the middle of the night,” he says. “They pop into my head when I’m driving to work – sometimes when I’m in traffic and not even thinking about my work.” The corollary, of course, is that most of those ideas lead nowhere. But a good scientist isn’t discouraged by such temporary setbacks. “Eighty-five to 90 per cent of my ideas don’t work,” says Georges. “But it doesn’t mean that they weren’t good ideas – you have to try these things until you get one that actually works. And then you get your breakthrough.”

Nobel Prize laureate John Polanyi, U of T’s most famous chemist, agrees. He points to James Watson’s account of the discovery of the structure of DNA, which is recounted in Watson’s popular book The Double Helix. Watson tells how his research partner, Francis Crick, ran into a Cambridge pub one day screaming about the breakthrough. Polanyi believes that such moments, while memorable, are the exception rather than the rule. “Most people who run into pubs saying they’ve found the secret of life have already been to several other pubs and are drunk,” jokes Polanyi. In his own lab, Polanyi says that researchers who burst in to announce that they’ve made a great discovery often come back the next day with a sheepish look on their face, forced to admit they’ve made a mistake. Most discoveries rest on long, laborious research efforts. “I’m convinced that before Archimedes did what he did, he must have performed similar experiments quite a few times,” Polanyi says. Georges confirms that his breakthrough with polymerization did not come overnight. “I had the idea, but it didn’t work immediately,” he says. “I probably worked six days a week, 10 hours a day…. It took eight to nine months of solid work.”

Even if such insights come only after periods of intense concentration and mental focus, there is some evidence to suggest that they form a distinct type of mental process. Jordan Peterson, a U of T psychology professor studying personality, motivation and achievement, looks at such moments of insight in terms of pattern recognition. All of the months (or years) of searching for a solution to a problem are like having a partial pattern – say, one-third of a pattern, he says. “And then when you hit upon the right combination of events in the external world, that fills in the last two-thirds,” Peterson explains. “All of a sudden you can see something as complete instead of partial, and that’s an aha moment – where the juxtaposition of what you know and what you experience enables you to understand something in a completely novel way.” In the Archimedes case, the external stimulus was the sight of the bathtub overflowing; with this new information, his theory of density and displacement was complete. Such eureka moments, Peterson says, allow you to “see that two things are related in a way that you never thought before, and this often opens up a vista of possibility.”

Peterson’s research sheds light on how the minds of creative people differ. One key, he says, is a low level of latent inhibition. Our brains are constantly struggling to make sense of the flood of information streaming in via our senses. Some of these pieces of information are vitally important. Others – in fact, the vast majority – are completely irrelevant. Latent inhibition refers to a person’s ability to ignore the great bulk of unimportant information. A person with higher latent inhibition is better at filtering out redundant or useless information – but may be less creative. Those with lower latent inhibition do a poorer job of filtering and may be more creative.

“The world is way more complicated than it appears to you – unbelievably more complicated,” Peterson says. “So a lot of what your brain does is filter out information. What you perceive at the end of that intense process of filtering is a very narrow, select and specialized slice of the world.”

Peterson recently examined this idea with researchers at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The team looked at Harvard undergraduates who had either published a novel or book of poetry, recorded and sold a musical composition, patented an invention, had their artwork displayed in a gallery or made a significant scientific discovery. The researchers found – perhaps not surprisingly – that these young men and women scored higher, on average, on IQ tests. They also had lower levels of latent inhibition; compared to their peers, their brains saw a greater number of objects and situations as new and worth examining. “The creative people that we studied had more permeable filters so that more information came through,” says Peterson.

He believes that the study could shed light on the centuries-old debate over a link between creativity and madness. Allowing a small number of novel ideas into your brain could be beneficial; granting hundreds of useless ideas the same attention could be extremely harmful. “Imagine you have a hundred ideas. Ninety of them are probably useless, and eight of them are probably downright pathological. You’ve got to get rid of those and only keep the two that might be useful,” he says. “If there’s going to be more information getting through, you better have a more efficient sorting mechanism. And if you don’t, then perhaps you’re more prone to psychotic disorders.”

In other words, there may be a fine line between creativity and psychosis. Those who can handle the flood of thoughts and images flowing into the brain may become great artists, writers or scientists; others may find themselves overwhelmed by the torrent of information.

Coming up with novel solutions to a problem is what psychologists call “divergent thinking.” People good at divergent thinking do well at insight problems and show creative achievement in their lives. Colin DeYoung, a graduate psychology student working with Peterson, has studied insight in the laboratory. His aim: to determine why some people are more insightful than others.

In one set of experiments, subjects were given a standard set of insight problems (word problems or riddles that subjects puzzle over until they suddenly “get” the answer). DeYoung observed a correlation between a subject’s success at insight problems and the person’s history of creative achievement (based on a standardized questionnaire, similar to the one used in the Harvard study). He believes that a set of basic mental abilities underlie both kinds of achievement. Divergent thinking is one such mental ability. Its main value is that it allows you to reframe a problem. This takes more than knowledge and intelligence; it requires that you look at the world (or at least a small slice of it) in a new way. “It’s not enough just to be smart,” says DeYoung. “Being smart might tell you there’s something wrong with the way that you’re looking at the world. But then you have to be able to step out of that and somehow generate a new pattern, a new way of looking at the world.”

In the 1920s, Graham Wallas, a British educator, political theorist and psychologist, described the four stages of creativity as preparation, incubation, illumination and verification. The third step represents the aha moment. Although subsequent studies have confirmed this general pattern, debate continues over whether the eureka moment is merely the culmination of an intense – but more or less homogeneous – mental effort, or whether it represents a distinct kind of mental activity. Some recent research into brain activity suggests the latter.

Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., investigated the phenomenon by giving people a series of word problems. The subjects were given three words, such as “fence,” “card” and “master,” and were then asked to think of a single word that would go with each of the words to form a compound word. (In the example, the answer is “post” – as in fencepost, postcard and postmaster.) As they tackled the problems, the participants’ brain activity was monitored using both FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and an EEG (electroencephalogram). The result: When the subjects felt they had solved the problem in a moment of insight, there was increased activity in part of the brain’s right temporal lobe; specifically, the anterior portion of the superior temporal gyrus (STG). The right STG is involved in a variety of linguistic tasks, from deducing the theme of a story to “getting” a joke. When the subjects claimed to have solved the problem methodically, without a specific moment of insight, the STG was less active.

The finding, says Jung-Beeman, lends support to the idea that what the brain does during a eureka moment is qualitatively different from what it does during general problem-solving. Even so, the brain is hard at work before the moment of insight occurs. “I still don’t know what mechanism is most important when the brain solves such a problem,” Jung-Beeman says. “Is it making a connection? Is it really just a switch? Or is it the unconscious processing that you were doing ahead of time? Which of these features is critical, or is it some combination of them? I’m not completely sure.”

Jung-Beeman is planning further studies to finely dissect the cognitive processes behind insight, to test how broadly his findings describe other kinds of problem-solving and to look for factors that either facilitate or inhibit insight.

For educators and policy-makers, perhaps the greatest challenges are discovering what strategies help foster eureka moments and how creative thinking can be encouraged. There is vast literature on the subject – but few firm conclusions.

One lesson from history is that greatness seems to breed greatness. Historians suspect that it may be more than a coincidence that a single environment often gives rise to a number of great thinkers. Southern England in the second half of the 17th century, for example, produced physicist Sir Isaac Newton, architect Sir Christopher Wren, astronomer Edmond Halley, and scientists Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle. “Being surrounded by people who actually have made discoveries of note is hugely important to making discoveries of note,” says Polanyi. Such minds, he says, can serve not only as an inspiration but also as a reality check. “It is part of the process of discovery that you need to have razor-sharp people around you, to prevent you from fooling yourself into thinking you’ve solved something,” he says.

At U of T, visionary planners are designing new facilities that will bring together razor-sharp people from particular disciplines as well as top researchers from allied but distinct disciplines, giving them opportunities to interact. The new Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research (Donnelly CCBR) is a case in point. The research centre, nearing completion on the north side of College Street just west of University Avenue, will house some 400 researchers and faculty members from the medical, biological and physical sciences. It will feature an innovative open-concept design – lots of glass and open spaces – to encourage scientific “mingling,” along with state-of-the-art classroom and laboratory space. The new building “will mix up scientists from many different areas that don’t normally bump into each other,” says James Friesen, a professor emeritus of the Faculty of Medicine and one of the originators of the Donnelly CCBR concept, along with medical colleague Cecil Yip. “It’s not only your ‘normal’ biomedical researchers – geneticists, molecular biologists, cell biologists and so forth – it’s stem-cell people, chemists, engineers, computer science people, physical chemists – the kind of people who, so far, in universities usually stick to their own departments.”

A similar breadth of exposure is probably desirable at all levels in the university setting, beginning with the undergraduate experience. At U of T’s Office of Teaching Advancement (OTA), faculty members are encouraged not only to teach their students the material they need to know to pass the course, but to expose students to their research and give them a sense of why they’re excited about a particular field. “We really do encourage our instructors to look at teaching as a creative exercise,” says Kenneth Bartlett, director of the OTA, “so they can tell their students that learning is not a passive endeavour. Students aren’t just empty vessels to be filled; they are living organisms to be excited and trained and developed, so that they can then go forward and extend knowledge as well as receive it.”

Exposing students to more than just what’s between the covers of their textbooks is clearly a desirable goal; at the same time, educators and administrators can also take steps to remove potential obstacles to creativity. Bill Buxton, a designer and consultant who has taught in U of T’s computer science department and still advises graduate students, believes there’s a real danger in having young people narrowly focus their studies. He says Canadian Nobel Prize winners almost all “have a near-professional competence in something outside of what they won the Nobel Prize for.” At least two of the winners in chemistry and medicine, for example, have significant talent in art and theatrical writing – “precisely the types of programs that are being cut from the school system,” says Buxton.

“Those great ahas – they’re like magic,” he says. “But it’s not magic how it happens. As a culture, as individuals, you can take steps to greatly improve the probability of it happening.”

“The best thing you can do is get the brightest minds you can, give them the best facilities and trust them,” says Friesen. You don’t know where it’s going to go, but you do know that it’s going to lead to some very interesting places.”

Dan Falk is a Toronto science journalist and the author of Universe on a T-Shirt: The Quest for the Theory of Everything.

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  1. 2 Responses to “ Eureka! ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Where are the great Canadian women? Where were the female writers, inventors, historians, teachers, astronauts and scientists? I'm sure Roberta Bondar (PhD 1974) and Margaret Atwood (BA 1961 VIC) would have appreciated seeing illustrations of themselves.

    Linda Kent
    BEd 1977
    Etobicoke, Ontario

  3. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    I was delighted to read Dan Falk's article about "aha" moments. Obtaining insight into insights is important for technological, intellectual and cultural development. The Canadian philosopher Bernard Lonergan, a former U of T professor who died in 1984, explored this subject in depth. His 1957 book Insight: A Study of Human Understanding is a thoroughgoing exploration of how intellectual breakthroughs occur. University of Toronto Press published a critical edition of the book in 1992, and continues to issue The Collected Works of Bernard Lonergan in collaboration with The Lonergan Research Institute, whose archives are housed just a stone's throw from the St. George campus.

    Mark D. Morelli
    PhD 1979
    Los Angeles