Paul McCartney keeps a piano bedside to try out musical ideas that come to him in the middle of the night.
Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, Sports Night) overcomes writer's block by taking six or more showers a day.
And John Kounios, a pioneer in the study of insight, rides the quiet Regional Rail car on his commute to and from his West Chester home so he can carve out a creative, idea-inducing space for himself.
The Drexel University professor of psychology further isolates himself by donning noise-canceling Bose headphones (to block the rumble of the train) and sunglasses.
Then Kounios closes his eyes and thinks. Often enough, the de-focused state leads to aha! moments, those flashes of insight that produce a new idea or solve a vexing problem.
Making a quiet space for creative thought in a 24/7 beeping, blinking, connected world is no easy task. So argues Kounios in his new book, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain (Random House, $28), cowritten with Mark Beeman, a professor of psychology and neurosciences at Northwestern University.
"I really think the modern lifestyle is not as conducive to this deep creativity that produces really powerful insights," says Kounios, 58, who also directs the doctoral program in applied cognitive and brain sciences at Drexel. "We're too busy, too distracted, too stressed out. We don't get enough sleep. We're too tired. It's hard to get into this creative state."
In the highly readable Eureka Factor, the authors unpack their groundbreaking creativity research and offer ways to encourage insights.
"Most problems don't need an aha moment to be solved," Kounios says. "Most problems in day-to-day life are straightforward."
But when that nettlesome quandary does appear, Kounios offers some suggestions.
"The first hurdle," he says, "is knowing when you're really stuck. You have to have that moment of honesty and be willing to admit that your tried-and-true method is ineffective."
Then, it's all about achieving that state of mind. To foster eureka moments, Kounios offers some suggestions, based on his and others' research:
Stay positive. A good mood "has a powerful effect on creativity," he says. This by-product of feeling safe may allow for more risky ideas to take root.
Focus inward. "A lot of the creative figures in the book like to get away from everything," he says. A shower is a classic example of sensory deprivation, with its white noise of running water. Bill Gates takes "Think Weeks," where he goes alone to a cabin retreat to read and ponder.
Sleep on it. Besides improving a person's mood, sleep consolidates memories. "It brings out the nonobvious connections and associations in the details of a memory," Kounios says.
Kounios can attest to this last one. He was searching for a catchy title for his book. One evening, his wife, Yvette, a former journalist who teaches writing at local colleges, fell asleep on the couch. "Yvette woke me up in the middle of the night. She said, 'I had an aha moment about the title.' " Her idea: The Eureka Factor. His editor loved it.
About a decade ago, Kounios and Beeman discovered the "neural signature" of sudden insight through the novel use of brain imaging, research published in 2004 in the journal PLoS Biology.
"They've done pioneering studies in this field, an area not many people have worked in," says Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book The Seven Sins of Memory. "They've shown insight is not just an ephemeral thing that happens once in a while. It is something you can study. You just need the right paradigm."
Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, also praises Kounios' contributions to the field and agrees that multitasking hinders opportunities for insights.
"We tracked the creative ideas of physicists and writers during the day . . . and found about a third of those ideas happened when they were mind-wandering, and when they were mind-wandering, the ideas were more insightful," he says. Mind-wandering, he notes, tends to happen during nondemanding tasks, such as gardening, showering, or doing light housework.
Skeptics have argued that aha moments are nothing special - just emotional reactions to otherwise deliberate, analytical thoughts. "The sharp distinction is a lot blurrier than it's taken to be, I think," says Robert Weisberg, a psychology professor at Temple University, who is not convinced insightful thinking truly involves different processes.
Kounios, however, says he has physical evidence of "events in the brain that lead up to that aha moment."
Using both EEG and functional MRI (fMRI), Kounios and Beeman analyzed what happens in the brain when subjects solved word puzzles known as remote-associates problems. Consider pine, crab, and sauce. Then figure out a common word that makes a familiar compound or phrase with each. (Spoiler alert: apple.) These puzzles can be solved with sudden solutions (insightfully) or by methodically trying different options (analytically).
The scans show that the right temporal lobe, located just above the right ear, lights up when an idea pops into awareness - the neural pathway triggered during an aha moment.
At the moment of insight, high-frequency EEG activity known as gamma waves occur above the right ear. Gamma waves represent cognitive processes that link together different pieces of information.
The fMRI showed a corresponding increase in blood flow in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, the part of the brain's right temporal lobe involved in making connections between distantly related ideas. This activity was not present when the word problems were solved analytically.
"Aha moments can provide solutions to problems you don't know you have," Kounios says. "It's a matter of making a commitment to create time when you're isolated from all that stimulation. We can't always be on information overdrive."