Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Anatomy of Insight

Marie Curie with mathematician Henri Poincaré in 1911. Poincaré said a breakthrough moment in his work came while boarding a public bus.

Yesterday I wrote about the Flicker effect and the fact that so many of us are focusing energy on documenting the minutiae of our lives. I mentioned a story about Bjork and how she recognized that being too tuned into the details of her surroundings impeded rather than inspired her creative process. I've been wondering if this obsession with cataloguing and recording might impact our perception of things, if being so attuned to specifics and the myopic view through a camera might stunt our ability to understand context.

Last night I came across an article in this week's New Yorker about creative insight. Writer Jonah Lehrer has been following the work of several scientists engaged in experiments with the brain and our eureka moments. The studies aim to pinpoint the area of our brain responsible for insight, and to map the physiological processes that presage a conscious Aha! moment.

Scientists have found that creative problem solving happens when we allow our focused brain the freedom to wander:
"One of the surprising lessons of this research is that trying to force an insight can actually prevent the insight. While it's commonly assumed that the best way to solve a difficult problem is to focus, minimize distractions, and pay attention only to the relevant details, this clenched state of mind may inhibit the sort of creative connections that lead to sudden breakthroughs."
Which is why, the scientists explain, breakthroughs often happen in a warm shower when we're least prepared for them. When we zoom in - whether it's focusing our attention or our camera lens - we can stymie the brain's ability to see the bigger picture and generate insight. In the words of Lehrer, "we suppress the very type of brain activity that we should be encouraging."

I don't want to put too fine a point on this; I'm not suggesting that all this picture taking is making humans blunted, dull, and stupid (you could blame the surface-skimming reality of the Internet for that, perhaps). Palpating the world through imagery is perfectly fine, it's just that something might get lost in the process. An event has a different power when you allow it to unfold rather than set out to freeze it in the digital ether. Your brain absorbs and observes differently when you're not in this hyper-state of photo capture. And you might just find that the concert, the party, the barbecue, the conversation, takes on a new meaning when you remove the camera from the equation.