Epiphanies and How To Channel Them

Descartes, Kekule and Archimedes…Desk warriors don’t come badder than these guys.

Intelligence is connected in both obvious and subtle ways to creativity, understanding and the generation of ideas, some of which are so mind-blowing that they have come to be called epiphanies, from the Greek ‘epiphanaia’ meaning ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation’.

‘It just came to me…’

Following a congenial visit to a friend and fellow scientist, German chemist Friedrich August Kekulé was daydreaming on the last bus home to Clapham Common in London. In his mind’s eye, he saw dancing atoms, the larger ones forming a chain, dragging the smaller ones after them. Thus was born his theory of carbon bonding in chemical structures; previously, the nature of their motion had remained unknown.

Seven years later, in a similar state of reverie, he had another vison of dancing atoms, twisting and turning in a snake-like motion. Suddenly, one of his imaginary snakes seized hold of its own tail, forming a circle like the mythical Ourobos and began to spin ‘mockingly’ around and around. He woke with a start, realising that the snake had revealed the shape of the benzene ring, a discovery which was hugely influential to the subsequent development of pure and applied chemistry.

Kekulé’s experience can be described as an epiphany, one of those Eureka moments that strike, seemingly from nowhere, where suddenly seemingly disparate pieces of information coalesce, and a solution to a problem magically reveals itself. Writer AL Kennedy refers to the ‘epiphanic cat’, because these revelations cannot be called or summoned at will. Elusive and mercurial as they are, it is possible to create the conditions for epiphanies to be more likely to occur, as Kekulé’s experience clearly shows. He had developed the habit of daydreaming, deliberately creating the conditions for himself to be able to meld his conscious analytical self with his untrammelled creative unconscious, with spectacular results.

There are many examples of famous epiphanies. Archimedes noticed that the water level rose when he got into his bath. The submerged part of his body was displacing its exact volume in water. He had been wrestling with the thorny problem of whether King Hiero’s crown, which was supposed to be pure gold, had been mixed with silver by a dishonest blacksmith. He couldn’t melt the crown down to calculate its volume, but he suddenly realised he could obtain the answer simply by submerging it in water and measuring how much fluid was displaced. Once he had the volume, he could calculate the density by comparing it with the exact same volume of gold. Legend has it that he shrieked ‘Eureka’, Greek for ‘I have it!’ and joyfully danced naked through the streets of Syracuse. As for the blacksmith? Apparently he had indeed ripped the King off. His fate is lost to the centuries, but I suspect he paid a heavy price for his attempted swindle. Ancient societies were not particularly forgiving, and the Greeks were no exception.

René Descartes formulated the co-ordinate system known as Cartesian geometry by lying in his bed idly watching a fly buzz around the ceiling. He realised that he could pinpoint the fly’s exact location by using the corners of the ceiling as reference points, where the horizontal and vertical measurements together provided a unique pair of co-ordinates. He realised that the axes (in this case the length and breadth of the ceiling) were theoretically infinitely long in all four directions, and that measurements below and to the left point of the crossing point could be described with negative numbers, making it possible to specify all points on an infinite plane. The co-ordinate system successfully linked algebra with geometry, making it possible to solve geometric problems using algebra, and vice versa. Descartes was a night owl; he did his most creative work far into the small hours, and liked to remain in bed until late in the day. As in so many areas, his recognition of the benefits of sleep and his respect for his own natural meridian rhythms put him far ahead of his time. He was forced out of this cosy habit by Queen Christina of Sweden, who insisted he teach her mathematics at 5am in the morning. This abhorrently early hour and the frigid cold of the Scandinavian winter gave his system such a shock that he contracted pneumonia at the relatively young age of fifty-three, and very sadly died at the height of his creative and intellectual powers. While the early bird catches the worm, it can also end up as dead as Descartes.  

Creative people have the ability to connect various experiences in order to synthesize new ideas. Possibly they have more diverse experiences, or are able to derive more value from the everyday experiences they have. The more varied your experience, the bigger your world, and the more likely you are to be able to connect the dots in a much wider global picture. Learning things for pleasure adds to the slush pile of creative raw material and adds incalculable value to human experience. It would be a colourless life indeed if people confined themselves to activities that have a purely practical benefit.

Why do some people find creative solutions that remain stubbornly inaccessible to others? No one has such complete control over their minds that they can order up Eureka moments as if they were items on a menu. However, it is possible to cultivate a mindset, as well as create the right mental conditions for them to be more likely to occur. My sensei observed that when considering the above examples of three long-dead geniuses, their experiences have some features in common, whereby they succeeded in marrying their external objectives with their interior subconscious via a meditative state which allowed them to find the answers inside:

  • All three were wholly immersed in their subjects, using all of their creative energies and intellectual powers to approach them from all angles. They were no strangers to the concept of flow, even if they were all long dead by the time Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was born.
  • They paid attention. They understood the concept of saper vedere and took the time to truly observe the phenomena around them, constantly reappraising all facets of the world, noticing things that others took for granted. They registered, even subconsciously, clues in their environment which would contribute to the solutions of seemingly intractable problems. Archimedes must have been aware from infancy that the water level in his bath rose when he lowered himself into it, but the application of that knowledge only became important to him when he really needed it to solve his immediate problem.
  • They learned to leave the problem alone and to go and do something else. The subconscious is good at scrabbling around for disparate clues to cobble together solutions, working without supervision while the conscious mind is engaged elsewhere. Crossword fans experience this frequently: they hum and haw over a clue which stubbornly eludes them, then as soon as they are occupied with another activity, the solution comes to them unbidden. I have learned that this is also the key to overcoming procrastination in my business life. Formerly, I would ignore whole banks of emails, telling myself that I would go back to them and read them through properly ‘later’. Now, I open each one, and skim the contents, getting the gist of what they are about, even if I do not act on them immediately. In this way, I can get on with other things, and all the while, my subconscious is working on the information contained in the emails and I never miss anything important. It’s like a kind of magic.