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Problem Solving, Shaving, and Sheldon Cooper

Have you ever been so stuck on solving a problem that no matter how much brain power you could muster the solution continued to elude you, frustrate you, and even drive you crazy?  Or you are searching for a new idea, and the more time spent on it the further it drifts away?  It seems like the quintessential rock and a hard place.  Let’s see how tv’s brilliant yet awkward physicist Dr. Sheldon Cooper (he’s not crazy, his mother had him tested) overcame this exact scenario with a little help from Albert Einstein, and then I’ll share what works for me.

Engaging the Superior Colliculus


The scene
: Sheldon Cooper has been up all night trying to solve a problem.  When we first see his struggle, he is attempting to engage the superior colliculus of his brain (I’ve done similar so-called brain strategies in times of desperation – they don’t work).  Three days and no sleep later he is still stuck when he has a breakthrough that will ultimately lead him to his solution.

Sheldon realizes that Einstein discovered Relativity while working in a Patent office, so he finds a similar job that occupies him with a routine task while freeing his prefrontal cortex to work quietly in the background on his problem.  He takes a break from physics and volunteers as a busboy at the Cheesecake Factory.  As you can guess, his epiphany soon follows.

Sheldon Cooper

Dr. Sheldon Cooper…for the win

Pushing the ‘Pause’ Button

Likewise, when I put my brain to work on a task involving focus but not problem-solving skills, it opens up my mind to work without me getting in the way.  Thoughts, ideas, and solutions appear to spring out of nowhere!  Upon investigation, many people report this happens when taking a shower.  It is due to something called creative pause.   Creative pause is when you “shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or being disengaged altogether.”  This phenomenon usually precedes the coveted “a-ha!” moment (most notable – Archimedes discovering the principle of buoyancy in the bathtub and subsequent streaking through Athens while shouting Eureka!).

For creative pause to occur, three things seem to be common across the board:

  • Distractions are minimized – including noise and technology.
  • Your body is engaged in repetitive activity requiring minimal mental engagement.  This frees your mind to think laterally.
  • Change of scenery or environment.

Is it any wonder these moments happen in the bathroom?  Where else are all three criteria met on a daily basis?

Shaving as a ritual

I am not a shower thinker, but I have many creative insights while shaving. It didn’t begin until a couple years ago when I switched to shaving with a safety razor (like the one your grandfather used) and a badger brush.  I found that the ritual of the experience gets me “in the zone,” and while I’m staring in the mirror using just enough mental power to keep my skin intact, new ideas and solutions have the opportunity to make themselves known – and frequently do.  I used to think of shaving as a chore, but now I enjoy and even look forward to this part of the morning.

What About You?

How do you achieve creative pause?

Any Eureka! moments you would like to share?  What preceded those moments?

Do you think in the bathroom?  Where else have you found it easy to have breakthroughs?

Continue the discussion in the comments, I’m looking forward to seeing your creative strategies.

About Cole Bradburn

I'm a writer and doctor in lifelong pursuit of health, happiness, and adventure. I currently live in Raleigh, NC with the love of my life and our amazing boys.

  • Anonymous

    For whatever reason my Eureka moments happen as I doze off. Many creative ideas have been lost because I thought the ideas was so good I’d never forget it…..and I always do. So now I reach for my phone immediately to put that idea down! Thanks for sharing!

    • Nathan,
      I completely agree with that, thank goodness for Evernote voice notes (I’m usually too out of it to type as I doze off). This is probably exaggerated, but I feel like I could fill books with ideas I have forgotten, which in my hubris I thought my steel trap would never forget.

  • Another media example of this phenomenon can be seen almost weekly on the Fox TV series, “House, M.D.” Dr. Gregory House has a seemingly impossible case to diagnose and without fail during the final third of the episode some unrelated clinic case or conversation with a colleague will trigger that “Eureka!” moment.

    • You’re right, House has these moments every week (and at the eleventh hour), and they always portray him shifting gears to have his Eureka!

      If you like House, you should love this. In Scrubs (s6, ep 4: My House) they parody this trope very well to figure out how a guy turned orange.

  • Another Einstein “eureka moment”

  • Visiting from Jeff Goins post today. Some great thoughts on need for pauses. By the way, I am reading this while watching a rerun of the Big Bang Theory. Love this show.

    • That’s the only way to read it! Thanks for stopping by Eileen, great to have you here.

  • Sissel Arctander

    Gardening works great for me, espesially weeding.

    I think clearing your clutter, that Jeff Goins talks about is actually the same. You move around in the house and do routine stuff, while your brain is working on problem you know you soon have to deal with.

    • I agree. I usually find myself cleaning while stuck or awaiting beginning a new project. I used to think it was simple procrastinating, but I have realized that it is de-cluttering my mind and freeing up the subconscious to do work. Thanks for stopping by Sissel!

  • Sanna Haynes

    now I understand why I have so many epiphanies while I attempting to drift off to sleep…

  • Sanna Haynes

    *attempt

    • I know, me too.  

      I’m pretty thankful for the iPhone’s voicenotes.  I can just rattle off whatever and drift off into sleep without having to write it down (waking me up fully) or have it be lost forever

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