Simon Nightingale, local consultant in neurology and humanist, has a regular slot on the Sunday morning ‘Pause for Thought’ on BBC Radio Shropshire. On this occasion we were too late to post a link to the 12 May broadcast on line, but Simon has kindly provided us with a transcript of his talk.
Mike, I was trying to remember the name of a film the other day and I just couldn’t jog my memory. I tried a variety of tricks; I knew the actors in it; the plot was amazing; I recall who I saw it with and where… but… nothing! I gave up and wasn’t doing much when ten minute later the name of the film unexpectedly popped into my head.
That’s what we call an “Aha! Moment”- my subconscious had been working on the problem without me knowing and then telling my conscious mind when it had a result.
Neuroscientist have shown that these “aha! moments” – or “spontaneous insights” as they are also called, involve an area in our brain’s right temporal lobe – by coincidence just under that part of your head you scratch when you’re puzzled! On the other hand my conscious attempts to jog my memory involve an area on the left side of my brain – the opposite side.
These unconscious processes have gradually evolved since our primitive ancestors first developed a brain millions of years ago. The much more recently-evolved conscious part of the brain is quite small in comparison, but it allows us to direct our thoughts, rather than wait for inspiration. And it is consciously-driven reasoning that has resulted in man’s amazing achievements – such as space travel, computers, great art … and sadly… weapons of mass destruction.
Artists and writers, as well as scientists, all experience these moments of sudden insight, sometimes a wonderful and inspirational insight. My hobby is designing mechanical puzzles and often I get stuck with a project and spend hours trying out different designs. Then later on, over a cup of tea, – bingo! The solution comes to me – thanks to my subconscious, which has been rather more effective than my conscious efforts!
And you know, the subconscious checks the solution carefully, because it is pretty rare to experience a sudden insight and say “aha – no that’s not right!”
So do just you sit and wait for inspiration? No.. actually, it’s not that easy! You know the saying that genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration; well, if you want those insights, you can’t just sit and wait for them. You have to deliberately work hard on the problem – a design or a decision – and do that for a good while, so that the subconscious can understand what the problem is and be able to recognise the solution – before it is “uploaded” to your conscious mind. Just like Archimedes – the story goes that he had to test if the king’s crown was pure gold; he could weigh it, but how could he measure the volume without melting it down? After thinking long and hard without success, he went off to have a bath, then suddenly realised he could do it by fluid displacement. It is said he was so excited that he leapt out of the bath and ran naked down the streets of ancient Athens, shouting “eureka” – so.. if I’m arrested running naked through Shrewsbury, you’ll know why!
After deliberately contemplating the problem, it seems you have to do something else – or at least stop thinking about it. Some people, including certain religious faiths, deliberately sit quietly and allow the subconscious to mull over the things they’ve been worried about, hoping (sometimes successfully) for an insight that puts a fresh and helpful view on the problem. That is a powerful way to use your brain; first think long and hard about a problem and then wait for inspiration.
Because these sudden insights are so unexpected and not even asked for, it is easy to imagine that they come from somewhere outside ourselves, maybe from some supernatural source. Sometimes sudden insight can cause a person to change the course of their life, a sort of revelation or epiphany – a new career, a new “world view”, a new faith.
It is not surprising that some people believe these experiences are a divine revelation. …but humanists, though always keeping an open mind, will first consider a rational and evidence-based explanation. As a humanist and a neurologist – and a designer, I have no doubt that these wonderful experiences arise from the brain and nothing more.
Does it really matter? Well, yes it does. If you believe that these insights are always right because they come from a sacred source, you may make some unwise decisions. Mother Teresa’s sudden inspiration might be rather different from, say, Hitler’s. Some leaders, political and religious, have been influenced to do wrong by what they felt were revelations. You see, no person is infallible and no person’s insights are always correct.
Neuroscience is fascinating, but what does it tell us about how to live our lives. As a humanist and a neurologist, I think it is important to remember that these sudden ideas, though they seem to come out-of-the-blue without our asking and can be amazingly insightful, they are from our own brain and, like all human activity, are prone to error, bias and prejudice.
So do please use your marvellous subconscious as well as your conscious brain, but do not place too much trust in things that magically pop into your mind.