Since classical Greece, much has been written about the creative process. It is thought to have three phases. The first requires dedication and effort: the future musician, writer, architect or scientist studies their craft for days, months or years. They are then in a position to respond to the following stage, the moment illumination, when the idea appears. The third stage is also laborious: bringing the idea into existence.
The first and third phases are usually within the reach of any committed person. But between them is the magical moment, which makes the difference between a craftsman and an artist, a normal person and a genius. It is the moment of inspiration. That instant does not require time or effort, but a spark. What went through Archimedes’ mind when he was floating in the baths of Syracuse and shouted his famous “Eureka,” which sent him running naked through the streets of the city? The mathematician Henri Poincaré explained how, after working intensely on the problem of Fuchs functions with no success, he went out for a walk. Suddenly, when he was no longer thinking about the problem, he saw the solution. This story repeats itself over and over: it is said that Isaac Newton was resting under an apple tree when he saw a piece of fruit fall. That lucky moment changed the course of science and humanity. What is the secret behind it?
One day, when I was teaching at the Barcelona School of Architecture, a troubled student asked me for a meeting. “I only have two weeks left to hand in my final project,” she said with a broken voice and wet eyes, “and I can’t think of anything. Maybe this is not my career, even though I like it.” I understand, I told her; I will give you some advice that you may not be able to follow. It’s spring, the weather is magnificent, the summer heat is beginning to show. Pack your suitcase, remember your bathing suit and one of your favorite novels, take a train to Sitges and stay at a guest house near the sea. Forget the problem for the first week. Enjoy it. The second, if everything goes as I hope, you will use it to work on your project. She looked at me silently, eyes wide. It’s amazing how some students trust their teachers so much that they’re able to accept seemingly crazy ideas, I thought. The last train leaves at eight, she told me. She turned around and I watched her leave, determined to put the plan into action.
Two days later, someone knocked on my office door. It was her. “But aren’t you in Sitges?” “No,” she answered. “I just came back. The day after I arrived, yesterday, I was lying in the sun on the beach after swimming, and the idea occurred to me. It came to me so clear and complete that I filled my notebook with hand-drawn sketches. Are here. Tonight I will start drawing the plans.”
What happened here? Something obvious. In the creative process, the first and third phases require intense work: time and effort. But the moment of inspiration, the crucial moment of epiphany, demands the opposite: oblivion, relaxation, half-sleep. Sometimes mathematics comes to our aid to explain situations that we believe to be magical. One day I discovered that the intersection of two curves, a convex one that represents the brain’s judgment capacity, and the concave one that represents the imagination capacity, intersect at the half-sleep point. At that point, the mathematical product of the two curves, which represents creative capacity, shows a maximum. It corresponds to a brain frequency of about 10 cycles per second (the so-called alpha rhythm) and, as the curve shows, this is the point of maximum creative efficiency, the state of inspiration. That’s why Archimedes was floating in the baths, Newton resting under the apple tree and my student lying on the hot sand. Effort is useless here. Quite the contrary: we must flee from it and throw ourselves into laziness. That is the state in which ideas appear.
The problem is that we don’t always have a hot spring, a beach or an apple tree close at hand. In a rushed, anxious world, is there any way to place the mind in that state of maximum creative efficiency? Can I use a simple technique to place my organism in the state of low brain vibrations that Archimedes was in when he shouted “Eureka”? Dalí had an answer: after drinking my coffee and before falling asleep after dinner, he kept the teaspoon in his hand. When it hit the ground, it woke him up. The image that crossed his mind at that moment is usually optimal. He devised that trap to catch ideas.
Inspiration is about achieving a partial disconnection of consciousness and ensuring that memory, which is not static but kinetic, mixes the data on its own. But there are other ways. Some were already known by ancient cultures, without the modern enlightened man taking notice of them. Trust in the gods, for example. The gods, in almost all ancient cultures, are considered the supreme creators, the inventors of all things. They grant creative capacity to some mortals as a gift. Naturally, all these are just metaphors, but they hide an explanation of the creative process. To understand the gods, one must begin by paying attention to an ancient oriental technique: the vibration of the vocal cords. The sound that we emit when pronouncing a word (significant) is related to an image (meaning) that reflexively comes to occupy the mental screen of our consciousness. But if I manage to make a meaningless sound —say, om— my conscious attention seeks the corresponding image, but can’t find it because there isn’t one. Om is a word with no meaning. And what happens then? My conscience finds a blank screen and remains in a dead end. That is to say, it leaves a free field for my kinetic memory to generate images and ideas.
But what does this have to do with the gods? Prayer, which in all civilizations is understood as a way of addressing the gods, follows exactly the same path. The words are usually banal: meaningless vibration of vocal cords, blank screens of consciousness, freedom of creative memory to generate encounters among the data it contains. Nothing mysterious. Prayer is nothing more than a simple and ancient technique to obtain solutions to human problems. And the satisfied prayer affirms like Homer: God has enlightened me. Metaphors that use poetic language to explain a simple and very real physiological process: our memory is capable of generating images and ideas if the pressure of consciousness is lifted. And if we pray in a well-designed temple —like so many Gothic churches— the result is even more tangible. Certain architecture is designed to facilitate the favor of the gods. The temples are nothing but creativity laboratories, but the enlightened man has decided to abandon them. A regrettable waste.
How to have an epiphany
Other methods to achieve revelations do not require going to church. Jorge Luis Borges devised his own strategy: he pretended to be another writer, who he called Almotasín. For him, the release of conscience consisted of abandoning responsibility for the writing, leaving his creative memory free to give free rein to his occurrences. Borges’s trick —diverting his own personality towards a fictitious author— led me to propose one of my students’ favorite exercises in the Theory of Invention course. It was called A Divergent Day. Often, our routine is the biggest enemy of creativity. The trick was to leave the self behind. The exercise consisted of becoming an invented character for 24 hours. That day, they did not go to their usual jobs, they dressed differently, they ate different foods for breakfast and lunch, they rented a room and slept in another city, they changed their names and studied another topic. For most of the students, this was a long day, full of exciting adventures, encounters and unforeseen situations. It showed them that the world we live in can be different, starting with ourselves. The ideas that suddenly occur to the invented character surprise the real me, because they would be unthinkable under normal conditions.
The eureka moment comes to meet us when we leave routine. The explanation is simple: we have an inaccurate idea of what our memory is and how it works. According to the Oxford Dictionary, memory is a file from which we can extract data to display it on the mental screen of consciousness (recollection). But here the Dictionary misses something crucial, because our memory is not a static file, like a library, but rather a kinetic one: its data is in perpetual motion, boiling and colliding and recombining to generate new images and ideas. In my opinion, we can establish an analogy with Albert Einstein’s kinetic theory of matter —the particles of every material body are in perpetual motion and their average speed determines their temperature— by proposing a kinetic theory of memory. Like particles, data in memory moves, collides and combines. It occurs on its own, without requiring the help of conscience, which acts solely as a spectator and judge. We can therefore say that our memory has a temperature. The higher it is, the greater the agitation of the data it contains. This agitation of memory is controlled, like a thermostat, by conscious activity. Consciousness and memory form a self-regulating, cybernetic system, like a horse and its rider. Memory is the engine of the process, but it is governed by conscious activity, which acts by cooling off the combinatory capacity of memory. So, if we want memory to generate ideas or images, consciousness must be reduced. This was the case when Archimedes floated in the pool or when Poincaré took his walk. Like the string that pulls the kite, consciousness directs the process, but it must allow enough slack for wit to take flight.
That is why the methods to achieve creative efficiency propose tricks to place the brain frequency in an alpha state of relaxed consciousness. We must remain vigilant though, because if consciousness decreases excessively, we fall asleep. With the tension completely eliminated, the kite flies without control, creating unpredictable images (dreams). The optimal creative state is therefore that of a slightly reduced consciousness, which allows an oscillating tug of war over memory. The ways to achieve it act first on our physical organism and, secondly, on our brain frequencies. My friend Popon Basal, an excellent cellist, told me that his teacher, the great Mstislav Rostropovich, confessed to him one day his little secret: he always carried a rosemary branch in his jacket pocket. Before performing, he inhaled its aroma.
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