The “slow hunch” theory of good ideas

Everyone knows the story of Archimedes, the legendary Greek mathematician and scientist. One day, Archimedes was sitting in his bathtub, mulling over a problem given to him by the king: he was tasked with figuring out whether a crown was made completely of pure gold, or if it was partially composed of a cheaper metal. While moving around in the water, Archimedes noticed that the amount of water displaced was proportional to the weight of the object immersed in the fluid — it was this observation that fueled his moment of insight. “Eureka” — I have found it! — he is said to have cried, while he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse, possessed by epiphanic euphoria.

However, is this true? Do good ideas come as brilliant flashes of insight, or do they take another form? Steven Johnson has spent his lifetime researching this problem of idea generation and innovation, and opposes this claim. In his TED talk here (and his book), he explains that good ideas do not come as epiphanies, but rather arrive slowly and through a long process of hypothesis testing.

Johnson calls this “the slow hunch” theory: a great idea slowly fades into view over a long period of time. He provides the example of Charles Darwin and his theory of natural selection. While Charles Darwin portrayed his discovery of natural selection as a sudden realization, the reality is that Darwin’s copious notes already sketched out the framework of the theory of natural selection long before his self-reported epiphany in 1838.

While it might seem romantic and make for a much better story, Isaac Newton likely did not “discover” the most fundamental force in nature just because an apple fell on his head. I highly doubt that the experience of an apple falling from a tree and colliding with his head was able to stimulate the neurons in his brain to instantaneously construct the universal theory of gravitation. Rather, I am confident that Newton already had a hunch about the overall principles of gravity before the apple incident, having spent numerous years thinking about the problem, and the apple was just the final piece of the puzzle.

I think this is an important lesson for us all. We can find solace in the reality that idea generation is not a spontaneous flash of insight, and rather than being disheartened by the fact that we aren’t struck with multiple brilliant insights each day, understand that great ideas come as a result of deep thinking and constant refining over long spans of time. It does not take a superhuman brain to come up with great ideas — it only takes a mind that is receptive to new ideas, dedicated to the pursuit of new information, and disciplined enough to constantly adjust its own worldview and perspectives.

Piece from Nicholas Chow's website:

Nick Chow