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A Creative State of Mind

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Eureka, eureka, I’ve found it!” cried Archimedes while running around naked in the streets of Syracuse. The ancient Sicilians didn’t mind, they were used to turning a blind eye to naked lunatics. Archimedes rushed back home, grabbed something to write, and got to work. Or rather, continued working.

Vitruvius was the first to idolize Archimedes' invention of the law of buoyancy during his bath time. According to the Roman author, Archimedes was tasked by king Hiero II to investigate whether or not the goldsmith that fabricated Hiero’s golden crown has been dishonest by substituting some of the precious metal—without damaging the crown itself. Every time Archimedes pondered on a difficult problem, he took a bath, and this time, he noticed that the level of water in the tub rose as he got in. Could the submerged crown displace an amount of water equal to its volume? Eureka!

The golden crown story reached its mythical status by the time it entered the twenty-first century. Strangely enough, there is no mention of a golden crown in Archimdes' treatise On Floating Bodies. We’ll never know whether or not it is true. What is true, however, is that the Greek bath lover did seek a solution to a big floating problem. That same king Hiero II commissioned Archimedes to build a gigantic ship. A ship that should be capable of carrying over 600 people, a gymnasium, and multiple temples. During the design and construction of the ship, Archimedes might have been unable to contain his excitement over his discoveries.

Domenico Fetti's 'Portrait of a scholar' (1620), which is believed to portray Archimedes. Image public domain.

The Syracusia was later renamed to the Alexandria after gifting it to the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty as the Alexandrian port was the only one that could accommodate the monstrosity. It truly was the Titanic of the ancient Greeks.

Mon dieu, c’est ça, that’s it!” thought Henri Poincaré twenty centuries later, while boarding a public bus in the neighborhood of Coutances in Normandy. Poincaré’s efforts to solve a difficult mathematical problem turned out to be fruitless for weeks. Frustrated by the lack of any progress, he called for a break and joined a geological excursion near his then hometown Caen. The expedition bus unexpectedly presented the proof for his equation, but Poincaré was a man steeped in logic: he did not turn to the divine when searching for an explanation for the sudden illumination.

This wasn’t Poincaré’s first flash of insight. In true scientific fashion, he was determined to uncover a pattern. The famous mathematician showed great interest in scientific creativity and formed his own theory on the creative state of mind, concluding that the act of creation involves a period of conscious work followed by a period of unconscious work. After that, more conscious work is required, as what the unconscious mind produces isn’t a complete argument but rather a hint towards the right direction. Some of those hints might seem elegant and alluring but fall flat during thorough analysis.

After developing his theory on creativity, Poincaré was regularly found walking around the bluffs in Normandy or around the campus of the Sorbonne where he later taught. Preoccupied, like any other professor—except that Poincaré’s distraction was a deliberate attempt to bootstrap the unconscious processing of his conscious work. It was in those thinking non-thinking states that he conceived intricate proofs, ideas, and theses on arithmetic transformations of geometry.

Wow, time sure flies!” Philip noted after hearing his twin brother Andrew’s stomach growl. Before they knew it, the Oliver twins were working late yet again, completely absorbed by the flow of programming their next video game, Fantasy World Dizzy. The third Dizzy game was released by Codemasters in October 1989, just six weeks after the twins wrote their first line of code.

The iconic British egg-headed character was initially drawn as a distraction in-between creating various animations for another game called Ghost Hunters. Philip tried to get the most facial expressions out of a restricted sprite set of 24x32 pixels. There wasn’t enough room for arms and legs so crude looking red boxing gloves had to do. Satisfied with the result, Philip stashed it away and resumed the development of Ghost Hunters.

A few months later, the Oliver twins invented Dizzy, a unique blend between arcade and adventure games, and an instant best-seller for the Amstrad CPC and ZX Spectrum. Philip and Andrew would eventually release 25 Amstrad and 17 Spectrum games in a five year period. While behind a computer, they were fully engrossed in code, and time seemed to lose its meaning.

Still, on the way to success, the brothers regularly encountered roadblocks. When out of ideas, they deliberately took breaks by watching television shows, playing other games, experimenting in their sprite editor, and reading classic fables and tales. Count Duckula, Zork, Philosopher’s Quest, Jack And The Beanstalk, and Gauntlet all influenced various Dizzy games.

What is the greatest common divisor between Archimedes' relaxing bath time moments that helped him think, Henri Poincaré’s illuminations on random bus rides and long walks, and the productivity of the Oliver twins? All three examples showcase a certain creative state of mind: combining pondering with relaxing, letting the unconscious mind work after the conscious one, and taking breaks that inspire when in a rut.

Henri Poincaré was a polymath and excelled in the fields of mathematics, physics, engineering, and philosophy. By putting his subliminal self to work, was also a master in staging the creative state of mind:

The subliminal self is in no way inferior to the conscious self; it is not purely automatic; it is capable of discernment; it has tact, delicacy; it knows how to choose, to divine. What do I say? It knows better how to divine than the conscious self, since it succeeds where that has failed.

By locking themselves up in their bedroom turned office space, the Oliver twins got a lot done in little time. Once they started concentrating on the code, time seemed to speed up. And if things got too rough, a bit of fooling around was all it took to get back on track and keep the flow of ideas going.

Creativity cannot happen without getting into the right state of mind. Running around naked, crying eureka!, requires conscious effort—not because running consumes energy, but because that aha! moment will not pop up without previous intentional work and preparing your mind to be receptive for it.

This is part five of my creativity story. Be sure to also read part 1: collective creativity, part 2: constraint-based creativity, part 3: creative critical thinking, part 4: from curiosity to creativity, part 6: technical knowledge brews creativity, and part 7: the creative techniques toolbox.

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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