Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Maria’s line about creativity springing from boredom reminds me of the concept of the three Bs, which I first heard of while reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jim Briggs explains the idea and runs with it:
Wittgenstein said (according to Roger Schank) that the key to thinking is the three B’s: bed, bath, and bus. In other words, we think when we’re unfocused, un-concentrated, or even semi-conscious.
Let’s unpack this idea. First, it’s often in these states that we conceive of fresh and creative ideas. Second, semi-consciousness is most beneficial after a period of intense thinking. You must get out of your bed before you get into it.
Matthew E. May takes up the theme of thinking as not-thinking in In Pursuit of Elegance.
The thesis of Elegance is that humans create better, more elegant products—houses, painting, music, books, computer algorithms, even traffic controls—when they “stop doing”—when they subtract and limit rather than continue to add, add, add. May quotes writer and business consultant Jim Collins:
A great piece of art is composed not just of what is in the final piece, but equally important, what is not. It is the discipline to discard what does not fit — to cut out what might have already cost days or even years of effort — that distinguishes the truly exceptional artist and marks the ideal piece of work, be it a symphony, a novel, a painting, a company or, most important of all, a life. (blog)
In the last chapter of the book, May makes a final riff on “not doing”—as “not thinking.” When we stop thinking after a period of intense thinking, we can experience Eureka! He cites several examples.
Archimedes discovered volume displacement during a BATH.
Einstein thought of general relativity in a day DREAM.
Continued here. Update from a reader:
The “bed, bath, and bus” thing is new to me, but rings of solid truth. I’d add a fourth B: broom.
I’ve read (I forget where) and have certainly experienced that repetitive—but, crucially, not rote/robotic—physical activity prompts creative thought. The idea is that the activity distracts one just enough, and/or relaxes one just enough, and/or focuses one’s conscious just enough, that the unconscious mind can escape its monitors and run free. Hence broom. Sweeping a big room, or shelling peas, or (my favorite) splitting wood, or just simply walking (outdoors; treadmills are too robotic). Any of these and many more have done the job for me, and I would guess for many others.
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