Friday, July 18, 2014

A Somnambulist's Guide to Innovation

Logical Vs Creative Thinking

To think innovatively, we need to strike a balance between logical thinking and creative thinking. Creative thinking, most often starts with an illogical thought. Einstein's thought experiments (Gedanken) started with a seemingly absurd question what will we see if we travel as fast as light. Crazy questions that typically start with "what if" lead to interesting and innovative thoughts. But we cannot make much progress with our crazy question if our logical mind is active. The logical mind will kill the creative thinking very quickly. The job of the logical mind is to ensure that we think logiocally and it actively distracts us from all illogical thinking. Now, how do we escape the constant vigil of our logical mind and start our journey of innovating ?

The Precious moment for Creative Thinking

There is a moment when we can do this most easily - when we are tired and sleepy. Kekule got his breakthrough idea of a cycling structure for Benzene when he "dreamt" of a snake trying to catch its tail by its mouth. He was tired doing his chemistry experiments and was taking a power nap in his lab. Similarly, Newton connected the two dots between an apple falling and planetary motion and attributed both to gravity. He made the connection when he was lazing under a tree on a summer noon. There is something special about this semi-sleeping state that makes it conducive for creative thinking. Sleep-walkers or Somnambulists have always triggered my curiosity. How does a sleeping person move around without hurtinh himself. I have also heard that some of these somnambulists can even do more complex talks like washing clothes, cleaning vessels etc. On Monday mornings, when I leave home at 3.30am to catch an early flight to work, I turn my thinking to what one can do while in a semi-sleep mode.

How Gowri found a new route in Melbourne

This phenomenon is not limited to great scinetists like Kekule and Newton. My friend Gowri shared a similar experience recently - she was driving back from Work in the suburbs of Melbourne last week. She was very tired, had a headache and could not concentrate on her driving. Though she had been regularly driving in this route for many weeks, she lost her way and found herself in an unfamiliar region. But she was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much shorter route to her home. She seriously started doubting how much should one trust the logical mind with thinking for new ideas.

Edison's creativity technique

I had read or heard somewhere (sorry I dont remember the source) about how Edison used to meditate on complex problems. He was famous for his power naps. He had his favourite rocking chair for pondering on his tough-to-crack problems. He used to hold a metal ball in his hand and allow it to drop on a metal plate, kept by the side of his chair, when he dozes off. The loud bang wakes him up from his reverie. It is at this precise moment that he finds an innovative solution to his difficult problem. I am unable to find a reliable reference for this information - but it is interesting and worth giving a try.

Here is the Somnambulist's Recipe
  • Write the problem down on a post-it and carry it around with you.
  • Have an alarm pre-set for 10 minutes in your wrist watch or mobile phone.
  • Whenever you find yourself sleep & tired, take a quick look at the problem statement.
  • Activate your alarm and doze off.
  • When the alarm rings and abrupty wakes you up after ten minutes, you have given your creative mind to think uninterrupted by your logical mind.
  • Jot down the idea when it is still fresh in your mind.
  • If you delay noting it down, your logical mind may take control and reject the idea.
To wrap it up...

We need to start our innovation journey in a divergent way with many crazy ideas and then gradually synthesize them into one innovative idea. Crazy ideas pop up most easily when we are in a tired or semi-sleepy state (that is when our logical mind has minimum control on our thinking). Let us pamper ourselves with a few power naps during the day (without feeling guilty about it) and allow a few crazy ideas to incubate. It may be that we are more productive while asleep than while awake, when it comes to innovative thinking. 


  1. Moreover thanks for introducing to the quote its quite powerful after all its not just a simple idea!!..

    Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life - think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success.

    Swami Vivekananda

  2. Thanks Shankar for the Great Article.

    I agree with you that there is a dilemma between innovation and rationality.

    Can an innovation process deliver sure success and be logical?

    My answer to the above question is yes, and I explain it in this article The Ultimate Innovation Process.