It’s the third century, B.C., and the King of Syracuse is suspicious. He has commissioned a new gold crown. But upon receiving the crown from his goldsmith, the king believes the item has been adulterated with silver. He asks his great scientist Archimedes to verify the crown’s purity.
At first, Archimedes is well and truly stumped. But then, as he slips into his bathtub and sees the water level rise, he realizes that he can use displaced water to assess the crown’s density and, therefore, its gold content. Archimedes leaps from the tub and runs naked through the streets shouting “Eureka!” which roughly translates to “I’ve got it!”
While its authenticity is debated, the story of Archimedes and the gold crown is still one of the most famous tales of scientific discovery. Researchers who study the process of creative breakthroughs, also referred to as “aha” or “eureka” moments, say Archimedes’ experience can offer valuable lessons to anyone who could use a little creative inspiration.
Eureka moments may seem unpredictable and unreplicable. But there are ways to coax these inspired ideas from their hiding places. One of the best is to take a break from thinking about a problem or dilemma.
“When you’re completely stuck on a problem, setting it aside can lead to new ideas or even flashes of insight,” says Mark Beeman, chair of psychology at Northwestern University and author of The Eureka Factor, a book that examines how the human brain tackles tricky problems and comes up with creative solutions.
Beeman says so-called eureka moments may seem unpredictable and unreplicable. But there are ways to coax these inspired ideas from their hiding places. One of the best is to take a break from thinking about a problem or dilemma. “When you step away from a problem” — meaning you focus your attention on something else — “what happens is something people call incubation,” he says.