On the moment of insight

Portrait of Jean-François Champollion holding his “alphabet” of phonetic hieroglyphic signs – Wikimedia Commons (A. Parrot)

I was just reading about how a “grammatical problem that has defeated Sanskrit scholars since the 5th century BC has finally been solved by an Indian Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge.” 

The researcher explains

“I had a eureka moment in Cambridge. After 9 months trying to crack this problem, I was almost ready to quit, I was getting nowhere. So I closed the books for a month and just enjoyed the summer, swimming, cycling, cooking, praying and meditating. Then, begrudgingly I went back to work, and within minutes, as I turned the pages, these patterns starting emerging, and it all started to make sense.”

This description nicely illustrates something about how the brain works to generate new ideas, alternating between periods of focused intensity of thought and stillness in order to arrive at a sudden moment of insight or intuition.  A similar process is behind many such ‘eureka moments’, where the would-be inventor or discoverer sets aside his or her work and allows their conscious thinking to clear, seemingly so that the unconscious mind can do its own distinctive work.  Thus about Jean-François Champollion’s decipherment of the Rosetta Stone, we read

“Champollion’s interest in Egyptian history and the hieroglyphic script developed at an early age. At the age of sixteen, he gave a lecture before the Grenoble Academy … In 1808, he first began studying the Rosetta stone … It was on 14 September 1822, while comparing his readings to a set of new texts from Abu Simbel that he made the realization. Running down the street to find his brother he yelled “Je tiens mon affaire!” (I’ve got it!) but collapsed from the excitement.”

Other examples of the ‘eureka moment’ are found in physics.  Albert Einstein was supposedly looking out of the window at his patent office at some precariously balanced window cleaners, when he had his “happiest thought”, realising that, were they to slip and go into free fall, they would not experience gravity, and thus that gravity was eliminated within their frame of reference, just as it is in outer space, paving the way to his general theory of relativity. 

Again, the physicist Leo Szilard was standing on the footpath in Russell Square in 1933 when in a flash he suddenly had an idea about how a nuclear bomb would work.  We read

“Just outside the Imperial Hotel, on the junction of Russell Square and Southampton Row, Leo paused at a set of traffic lights. As they turned green his Eureka moment came:

“It suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and which would emit two neutrons when it absorbs one neutron, such an element, if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.”

“Leo had effectively worked out the basis for creating nuclear energy, a concept which would soon change the world.”

Indeed, from Archimedes climbing into his bathtub to Newton and the falling apple, our histories of scientific discovery and invention are filled with stories of such ‘eureka’ moments.

The mathematical research of Srinivasa Ramanujan is perhaps an even stranger case of sudden insight, even more remarkable for his solutions to complex mathematical problems, presented not accompanied by any rigorous proof but rather seemingly as a product of some mysterious form of intuition.  Thus we read

“A deeply religious Hindu, Ramanujan credited his substantial mathematical capacities to divinity, and said his family goddess, Namagiri Thayar, revealed his mathematical knowledge to him. He once said, “An equation for me has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.””

This last example may indeed remind us of the special case of spiritual enlightenment, and the important debate that took place at Samye Temple in Tibet in 792–794 CE about whether enlightenment is a gradual and laborious process or instead a Zen-like moment of sudden spiritual insight.  The analogy with the above examples of ‘secular’ insight may suggest that there is some truth in both perspectives.

In the Kena Upaniṣad, the moment when the gods realised the nature of Brahman is expressed as a sudden flash of blazing clarity –

“She said “It is Brahman. Rejoice in this supreme Brahman.”  Then he knew Brahman … This is the imparting of it, when the flash has flashed, “Ahhh!”, in a blink, “Ahhh!”, in the realisation by the gods.”

[Kena Upaniṣad khaṇḍa 4 verses 1, 4; my own translation]

In some poetic traditions, the dawn, or each new dawn, symbolises the dawning of new ideas in the mind.  Thus we may end with a quote from the Rig Veda –

“Dawn, you are good.  Keep shining out.  Other dawns do not compare with you.

Guided by the reins of ṛta [dharma], give us good ideas and good ideas.

Dawn, easily called forth, keep shining for us today, and may we who are good to you have good things.”

[Ṛg Veda Maṇḍala 1 Sūkta 123 verses 11cd,13 by Ṛṣi Kakṣīvant Dairghatamasa; my own translation]

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