Where did your “Archimedes moment” come from?

I started this blog because I was interested to in the “Archimedes moment” of PhD topics. It was my hypothesis that there was a connection between a PhD topic and the ‘environment’ of the researcher. The “Archimedes moment” – that moment of insight or aha or Eureka – was a moment of what Catherine Malabou calls le voir venir, where the researcher consciously or subconsciously looks back to what went before and then forwards to what is to come. Indeed, a number of contributors to this blog have often commented how the very act of writing a post was a cathartic process of making sense.

But one thing I have noticed during the course of my PhD is that there has not been just one moment of insight, there have been a whole series of them. I noticed I would have them at the oddest times – travelling on the bus or train, in church, watching TV and always when I was not thinking necessarily thinking about my PhD. In fact, sometimes I even had them while procrastinating. Perhaps the best example is my actual theoretical reading.  Sometimes, I would start reading a philosophical book and it makes no sense whatsoever so I put it to one side and get on with something else. I would then keep putting off going back to that book. But eventually I do and it makes perfect sense. It’s almost as if I had to do other things first, read other things first, come to certain points in my thinking first, before my brain was ready to process a particular philosophical text.

On the one hand, I would put this process of insight after preparation down to God. He knew, in his omniscience, what I needed to do and in what order; he had his teaching programme all mapped out, and if I tried to depart from it (unknowingly) it wouldn’t make sense. But then I wondered, how does he do that exactly? According to Jonah Lehrer, it’s done through the very structure of the human brain.

It turns out that there is no such thing as right-brained or left-brained people. Well, there are, but those people are suffering from brain damage. But the healthy person uses both sides of the brain. The left side focus on individual detail and the literal meaning of words and the right side focus on connections, underlying order, connotation and so on. We are physically reading or looking at some data, our brain will use the left side as far as possible to understand it but eventually it reaches an impasse where what we are looking at does not make sense. We give up in frustration and decide to do something else. But that’s when our right side kicks in. Having failed to understand on the surface, the brain goes under the covers and looks underneath the data. That’s when we get insight. It works when we are not actually ‘working’ because it is only reviewing the work that has already been done.  I’m going to hazard a guess but that must be why I’ve woken up in the middle of the night with a solution.

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