It is said that the Greek mathematician Archimedes was sitting in the bathtub when he discovered the principle of buoyancy. It was probably his own body that gave him the idea while he was swimming in the water. The decisive moment was when the tub, which was filled to the brim, overflowed. The amount of this water corresponded to the body volume of Archimedes.
That was in the year 225 BC. and it was the birth of Archimedes’ principle. He himself described it as follows: “The static buoyancy of a body in a medium is just as great as the weight of the medium displaced by the body.”
“Eureka, Eureka!” Said to have shouted Archimedes before jumping out of the bathtub and running naked through the streets of Syracuse.
Scientific discoveries by a sudden intuition
Over the centuries, so-called epiphanies, i.e. inspirations, were the initial spark for many scientific discoveries. Perhaps the best known is the story of Sir Isaac Newton, who discovered the law of gravity after an apple fell on his head while relaxing under a tree.
Dreams, too, have been breeding grounds for scientific discoveries from time to time. So, after three days of intensive thinking, Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the idea of creating a periodic table in a dream. And August Kekule figured out the chemical structure of benzene while dreaming of a snake biting its own tail, forming a closed circle with its body.
We often have the best ideas when we are doing nothing
But it’s not just lounging and dozing that generates new ideas. Hiking and traveling are also experiences where you can get some new ideas, even if they are not as groundbreaking as those of some scientists.
Albert Einstein, for example, apparently experienced a real storm in his head while sitting on a tram in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905. This trip ultimately led him to the well-known theory of relativity. About 18 years later Leo Szilard came up with the idea of the nuclear chain reaction and with it the atomic bomb. This happened while he was waiting at a traffic light in London.
Think, relax, epiphany?
What do epiphanies have to do with relaxation? The most striking thing about these sudden discoveries is that they came to great scientists when they were just not busy with their work. According to psychological theories, the mind needs phases of relaxation in order to be able to develop creatively.
But of course, relaxing walks are not enough to make the discovery of the century. Hard work and intense thought are also important factors.
The flashes of inspiration mentioned came to the scientists after they had dealt intensively with a question over a long period of time.
For days Archimedes had puzzled over how to calculate the weight of the gold in King Hieron’s crown. He had commissioned him to do this. The solution then came to him in the bathtub. He also applied the Archimedean principle, which made sense to him when observing his own body in the water, to the golden crown.
As far as we know, there is no secret recipe for how epiphanies come about. However, a combination of intensive work and equally intensive relaxation seems to be important.
However, research suggests that not all forms of relaxation lead to a flood of realizations and ideas in the mind. According to a study, low-level tasks that aren’t boring but still require attention are best for generating new ideas. Such activities can include going for a walk, knitting or even taking a shower.
Experts believe that repetitive movements or thoughts that just wander around are important supports for our mind. They help us to connect individual ideas with one another. This is true, for example, of walking, which Aristotle, William Wordsworth and Friedrich Nietzsche said was the best time to think.
Isaac Newton was relaxed and letting his mind wander when he was hit by a falling apple and discovered the law of gravity
The psychology behind epiphanies
Epiphanies are not just about scientific discoveries. We all have light bulb moments and intuitions about our own lives from time to time, and it happens in a similar way to the great thinkers.
We might be in the supermarket or in the shower, and then – boom! – all of a sudden an important realization comes or we have ideas that might even change our lives.
Psychologists like Carl G. Jung and Christopher Bollas have explanations for this. Jung described epiphanies as a communication between the unconscious and the conscious.
Bollas described epiphanies as the “unthought of the known”. In other words, they are things that we already know deep down in our subconscious and that we didn’t consciously think about before. Bollas built on Jung’s approach to epiphanies, which said they are rare moments when the unconscious bursts into the conscious.
The phenomena are not planned, are not written anywhere and just appear suddenly and out of nowhere. They are completely beyond our control. We cannot consciously induce epiphanies. One of the fundamental goals of psychotherapy is to learn how to allow the unconscious to invade our conscious mind. According to Jung, this means that we must relinquish our ego’s control over our unconscious.
Whatever the reason, the combination of intense thinking followed by relaxation may be the best way to get in touch with our unconscious mind – or even achieve the next big breakthrough in science – Eureka!