The Eureka Effect

Hulan E. Jack Jr. 10/4/95 Rev 02/12/99


Research and long standing observations over the millennia - from ancient times to the present - indicate that in learning and problem solving there is very strong cooperative interaction between what are called the conscious and unconscious the minds. ( Some writers use subconscious and unconscious interchangeably. Others make distinctions between the two, with the levels being conscious, subconscious, and finally, unconscious.) Many books on learning, problem solving and creativity mention this process. But, the book "The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field", see bibliography below, is devoted to this process. It is the idea behind "sleeping" on a problem. I call this the Eureka Effect because of the story, related below, of Archimedes' discovery of the 'law' that "any body submerged in a fluid displaces an amount of that fluid equal to the volume of the body". The story is a good illustration of the results of the process. Eureka literally means "I found it."

A main feature of the process is as follows. First, you consciously work on the situation until you just can't do anymore - you are at the limits of your frustration. You temporarily quit, with the intention of returning to it later. This signals the unconscious mind that there is a task that needs attention. This sets the process in motion. NEVER GIVE UP. Giving up tells the unconscious mind there is nothing for it to do. Let's look at Archimedes and the process.


An ancient example of the Eureka Effect was the story about the ancient Greek philosopher, scientist, mathematician, Archimedes (ca 200's B.C.) running buck naked through the streets of Athens Greece as a result of solving a problem that had been plaguing him for some time. The king had commissioned Archimedes to develop a method to determine whether his (the king) crown was pure gold. A common practice of the time was to have an inside core of lead (real cheap) with an outer layer of gold. There was no way of testing whether you had an item of pure gold or a cheaper lead filled item. The concept of density, weight/volume, was known at the time. Weighing items the size of a crown was easy at that time (measuring objects the small size as milligrams and the large size as tons were not, and may not have been available). So, the missing variable was volume. The problem was how to measure the volume of objects with irregular shapes. Archimedes worked intensely on this problem over a period of time -- getting nowhere. The solution to this problem popped up totally unexpectedly. While lowering himself into the tub in the public bath in Athens his unconscious mind prompted him to notice that as he lowered himself into the tub the water level rose. Of course he had probably seen this every time he went to the baths, but paid it no attention. His unconscious mind had knocked on the door of his conscious mind and said "I got it. Here it is." So, now he could determine whether the king's crown was pure gold or not. The story is that he raced out of the baths, charged buck naked through the streets of Athens yelling "Eureka, Eureka" - translated, "I found it."

What was happening was that his conscious mind worked hard on the problem, until frustration. His unconscious mind would take over. Every so often it would knock on the door of his conscious mind and say "I need more work from you." Then, another episode of frustrating conscious activity. Again, at the limits of frustration, the unconscious mind took over. Finally, one day while minding his own business, his unconscious mind presented him with the solution.

The Interplay Between the Conscious and Unconscious Minds

You expend exhaustive efforts to perform a task without success. The frustration is overwhelming. To save your sanity you drop it for now with the intension to come back to it later. Sometime later while you are minding your own business, not at all thinking about that task, up it pops - the solution.

You work on the problem with your conscious mind to your frustration limits. You can't take any more for now. You quit for now - "Ill come back to it later." Now your unconscious takes over and works on the problem totally in background. You have no awareness of what is happening. Sometime later, hours, days, perhaps weeks later, while minding your own business (that is involved in other pursuits with no thought of this problem) out pops the solution. This is the Eureka Effect. Unfortunately, sometimes the unconscious minds interrupts you informing you of present progress, but requesting more conscious work. So, again you work on it to you frustration limits and temporarily quit to return to it later. The unconscious takes over again.

In terms of our present knowledge and understanding of the brain, the following is probably happening. The activity of the conscious mind sets up a complex of neural networks in the brain. Once getting to some state of completion, the neural networks are ready to start processing. Further efforts of the conscious mind are resisted. The feeling of reaching the limit of frustration is you brain telling you "STOP, I have all I need to start processing." Now the established neural networks start processing. This unconscious processing goes on for as far as it can. At this time it interrupts your conscious mind to either tell you, "I have completed processing," and "here is the solution to the problem," or "I need you (the conscious mind) to set up some more neural networks before I can continue processing."

Self doubt is a main killer of this process. "I can't get this." "This is beyond me." "I can't do it." "I just too dumb for this." The effects of dwelling on such thoughts is to stop the unconscious efforts that are building the neural networks. Worse yet, the final result when self double completely takes over may be to dismantle the networks already built - the brain is fairly efficient, so why should it maintain a new complex system that you have just declared you are not going to use.

An Example of a Small Child

A friend's child was about a year and a half old at the time. She fought to master a toy to reach the level of unmitigated frustration. She relieved the frustration with a good sturdy tantrum. Then promptly fell asleep. After a couple of hours she woke with a start. Charged over to the toy and immediately performed the task that she tried so hard earlier.

This behavior is typical of small children. Very small children often have the tantrum because they have no other way of alleviating the frustration. As a person gets older they develop other strategies to deal with the frustration.

Speculations on What's Happening in the Brain

Physically, thinking process consists of the brain searching existing neural connections and building new ones. When starting to solve a problem at the conscious level, the brain starts these neuronal activities. When one reaches the limits of frustration and quits for now with the resolve to comeback to it later, the unconscious takes the cue and gets to work. Under the hood, it continues the neural activities. Some conclusion starts to emerge. At this point, the unconscious sends a message to the conscious mind. The message may be the solution, or it may be a status report with a request for further work at the conscious level.

What happens when one completely gives up? Living creatures at all levels tend to be very efficient, they don't hang onto things that are not needed. My speculation is that if you say "I can't do it. I quit" signals the unconscious mind not to bother. So, it does not continue the neuronal activities. The recently build neural connections, while abandoned, may not be erased: There is little need to since there are so many possible connections possible ( there are about10 to 50 billion neurons with thousands of possible connections for each ). This non-erasure seems to be supported by the experience that many of us often experience where a new experience triggers and long, long forgotten and given-up-on problem.

A Suggestion on How to Use It

Take a problem for which the solution seems to elude you - you can't seem to get it. The problem may be from school if you are a student, from a hobby, from work, a person problem (dealing with a difficult or problem person or persons at work, in school, at home, in the neighborhood, etc.), from business if you are running one, whatever.

This may takes only a few days, or many, many months. Nobody knows. Nobody can predict. Try it. If the first problem is taking a very long time, you may want to tackle several problems at a time. Some will come to a solution quickly, some less quickly, some only after a very long time, perhaps a few never! Again, nobody knows how long any one of them will take, no one can predict. It will just happen.


Jacques Hadamard, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF INVENTION IN THE MATHEMATICAL SCIENCES: How Creativity is Tapped in Science ;The Unconscious Mind and Discovery; Intuition vs. Verbal Reasoning; Poincare's Forgetting Principle; Creative Techniques of Einstein, Pascal, Wiener and Others, Princeton University Press, 1945; Dover Publications, Inc., 1954 145 pp.

Jean Marie Stine, Double Your Brain Power; Increase your memory by using all of your brain all the time. , Prentice Hall, 1997 pg 19-20.

James L. Adams, Conceptual Blockbusting, a guide to better ideas 3rd Edition; Addison-Wesley, 1986, pg 47-48.

Additional references are being explored and sought. Any suggestions from readers are welcome.

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(C) Copyright H.E.Jack Jr., 1997.
Last date updated: 03/11/99