Archimedes is reputed to have had his ‘Eureka!’ moment in the bath, though anecdote has it that he then ran out into the street naked shouting «εύρηκα!» – “I’ve found it!”. Presumably his slaves filled the bath with hot water, he got in and it overflowed. The problem on his mathematical mind at the time was how to measure the volume of an irregular object and thereby calculate its density (a gold crown thought of be adulterated with silver). The solution? – dunk it in a bath and measure the change in water level.1
I’m not a genius so I don’t get to solve problems in the bath. Instead I seem to have creative thoughts and solve problems on the loo. Somewhat of a comedown.
I used to be in town planning, a ‘quasi-judicial’ process. Certainly after the Freedom of Information Act, I knew that everything I wrote, everything I edited of other colleagues’ work, could end up as evidence in a public inquiry or a court of law. The guiding principle was that everything – letters, report, plans, documents – should be ‘clear and unambiguous’. And as far as public documents were concerned they needed to be intelligible to the hypothetical ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’, enshrined in English Law.2
Contrary to a commonly held belief this required a great deal of careful and creative writing. Often I would be stumped for a way to express something and I would find my brain in a rut going over the same inadequate phraseology time after time. I would end up staring increasingly blankly at the computer screen.
The solution? I would leave my office, amble slowly along the corridor with furrowed brow, pained expression on my face …. and go to the loo. Frequently, though not always, I would solve the problem mid-dump. I would then rush at high speed back to my desk and tap out the new-found words into the computer. Needless to say this got me a reputation as a frequent visitor to the loo, which apart from the obvious explanation of having a medical problem was behaviour attributed to skivers(shirkers, slackers). Indeed I had some colleagues who would disappear into the loo for an extended period with a newspaper and drop it in the bin on their return, having read it from front to back. My trips along the corridor also caused some perplexity because I would walk slowly there and very rapidly back, the opposite of the normal pattern of a ‘man under pressure and with the pressure relieved’.
Whatever, it worked for me then and has continued to work for me since. Not that my creativity is very great but what there is is reinforced by a visit. To be fair, I also have flashes of inspiration in the bath and when I’m out walking in the mountains, though none are as productive as the loo.
I have two possible hypotheses to explain this phenomenon. The first is simply that in the loo I empty my mind as well as …. well, you get the picture. The mind thus uncluttered can then tap into the subconscious which has doubtless already solved the problem and is just trying to communicate with the dullard at the front. The second is an explanation I read about to explain why, when we go into another room to get or do something, we find we have forgotten the reason for going. The hypothesis is that going through doorways closes an area of our brain to what we do in that room and triggers associations with the ‘new’ room. It is certainly true that going back to where we had been often rekindles the original thought process. I have no idea which, if either, is correct but both could be subjects for PhD theses.
You might gather that I spent more time than usual in the thinking room yesterday, though not as productively, in the creative sense, as usual.