The ancient Greeks believed creative talent was the result of divine intervention.
These "daimones" provided people with intuitive insights. Nowadays, most people believe great ideas come from mere mortals. But this doesn't take away the magic and wonder of instantly knowing how to solve a complex problem or overcome an impossible obstacle. Since Plato and Aristotle, many famous people have made breakthroughs in science, mathematics, physics, and other disciplines thanks to these eureka moments.
If we want to harness this mysterious phenomenon, it's important to define a eureka moment and look at examples from history.
What Are Eureka Moments?
A eureka moment is a spark of knowledge or understanding that appears out of nowhere.
Insights ironically occur when our minds aren't focused on the problem at hand.
Sometimes eureka moments arrive disguised as dreams. This was the case for renowned physicist Stephen Hawking: His eureka moment about the nature of black holes came when laying down to sleep. For Albert Einstein, a train ride in Switzerland led to his theory of relativity.
That's why it's common for people to have eureka moments between periods of intense work—when taking showers, going on walks, or doing activities that allow the mind to wander.
Eureka Moments in History
History is full of people who've had sudden, life-changing insights.
Here are a few more examples.
Some 2,200 years ago, King Hieron II of Sicily had a problem.
After receiving a crown allegedly made of pure gold, the king held suspicions that the goldsmith may have swindled him by mixing some of the gold with silver. To discover the truth, the king asked the famous mathematician and physicist Archimedes to determine its purity.
After brainstorming, Archimedes stepped into a bath and noticed how the water splashed over the sides of his body as he entered the tub. It occurred to him that the amount of water displaced would be equal to the volume of his body—and from there, he could calculate an object's density.
In an instant, Archimedes understood the principles of buoyancy and volume. After famously declaring “Eureka!”, Archimedes was able to prove the goldsmith had, in fact, swindled the king.
Isaac Newton discovered the nature of gravity on a day like any other.
His friend and colleague William Stukeley described the event in his biography of Newton:
“…he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind. Why sh[oul]d that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground, thought he to himself; occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood…”
Most historians believe the story of Newton's discovery and the falling apple is embellished. But it illustrates how eureka moments can happen at any moment during mundane experiences.
Nikola Tesla conceptualized the induction motor while walking through Budapest.
According to Tesla, he was enjoying a walk through the city park and reciting poetry with a friend. The sunset reminded him of an inspiring passage. And after uttering the words, he had a flashing insight. He then created the diagram that, 6 years later, would be shared with the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Tesla's insight came when he was enjoying himself away from work.
The Common Threads to Cultivating Eureka Moments
While eureka moments seem to happen randomly, there are patterns across these stories (and many others) that we can learn from.
1. Take More Breaks
You may have noticed that eureka moments don't usually come when you're busy at work or stressed.
Insights tend to occur when the mind can roam freely during relaxation or contemplative states. This is why, after days or weeks of working on a problem, the answer can suddenly arrive when walking or engaging in activities away from work.
If you're feeling stuck on a problem, take a break. Go on a walk, take a nap, or do something fun.
2. Connect To Your Subconscious
Sudden inspiration is often a nebulous, intangible experience appearing from the depths of the subconscious.
Elias Howe's eureka moment came in a dream—or rather, a nightmare. He was moments away from getting executed when he noticed a soldier's spear was pierced at the pointy end. This served as a breakthrough insight that led to the sewing machine.
In the words of Thomas Edison, "Never go to sleep without a request to your subconscious.”
3. Stay Active
People who experience eureka moments have active lifestyles.
For instance, many of history's greatest minds have testified to the benefit of walking every day. According to a recent study conducted by Stanford, individuals who walked outside on a regular basis achieved up to 60% greater creative productivity than those who did not.
It's no wonder why people like Albert Einstein, Henry David Thoreau, and Charles Darwin were all prolific walkers.
Your Next Eureka Moment Could Be Any Second
The human mind contains mysteries that may never be fully understood.
But by following in the footsteps of creative thinkers, we can increase the likelihood of having our own eureka moments. Take breaks, connect to your subconscious, and be more active. Given time and patience, you too may have a eureka moment that could change the course of history.
Want to learn more about how to take mental breaks for higher productivity? Check out our article: The Best Way To Take a Mental Break From Work.