The importance of picking shells at the beach

Shells on the Beach

How often have you had your very best ideas at work or while you are thinking about a problem? Very rarely I would believe. More likely, it might have happened when you were washing the dishes after dinner, taking a shower, walkin in the forest or picking shells on the beach. Arkimedes got his Eureka experience when he was in the bathroom.

It may seem a bit illogical, but is completely in line with how the brain works when it needs to solve a problem. At the beginning of the process, we use the parts of the frontal lobe and adjacent areas responsible for the conscious logical thinking and problem identification. It is also this part of the brain that is used primarily when we seek facts (about the problem).

This part of the brain is also used to solve logical problems. Such problems often have a single answer / solution that can be reached through logical thinking, often via a protocol or “road map, eg. mathematical equations or questions in the SAT exam. In modern society, these problems are quite rare. Instead, we are struggling with open or illogical problems that can have many different solutions and where there is no road map how to get there.

When you are struggling with a problem that has to be solved, the brain needs time to process the problem and put it in relation to all the information already stored. Because of this, many different areas of the brain are required (memory, vision center, association center, emotion center …). This is an unconscious process that takes time and can not be forced. The interconnection between all these different parts of the brain occurs completely unconsciously (“incubation”). The result in the form of the brilliantly flashy Eureka insight, then usually comes to our consciousness when we are relaxed and while doing something completely different from thinking intensively and actively.

Highly creative people are aware of this and therefore take the time to do things that facilitate the process. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the light bulb and many other things had most of his ideas while he was fishing – without a hook to not be distracted by the fish (!).

So if you have a problem that is bothering you – stop thinking, take some time off from your work and go to the beach and pick shells. And even if you did not get that brilliant idea, I’m sure the walk itself was worth it.

Perhaps the biggest threat to our creativity is our fragmented time. In today’s working life there are few who have even one hour of unbroken time that we can devote to exactly what we wish.

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Illustration: iStock.com/Thatoneguy3987

Author: Karl Ekdahl

International public health leader and creativity blogger.

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