Sleepy, drunk, and away from your desk: how to generate ideas


1965. Bob Dylan’s at the height of his fame. But he’s lost his love of music. He hurries to get offstage at the end of every night, ignores his fans and groupies and is surly to the press.

“I guess I was going to quit singing. I was very drained, and the way things were going, it was a very draggy situation,” he told Playboy. “It’s very tiring having other people tell you how much they dig you if you yourself don’t dig you.”

Completely burnt out, he moves to a small cabin in Woodstock New York, and doesn’t even take his guitar.

After a few days he feels a sudden sense of something to say. He picks up his pencil and out pours a 20-page torrent of “vomit,” a mish mash of diverse influences, different to anything he’s written before.

How does it feel
How does it feel
To be on your own
With no direction home
A complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?

He raced back to Studio A at Columbia Records and recorded it within a week. The six minute song changed rock’n’roll.

Bob Dylan’s a genius, and writing Like a Rolling Stone is an archetypal “aha” moment of creativity at work: an insight delivered when you least expect it, and a sense of certainty that it’s the right way to go.

It’s also the first story in Jonah Lehrer’s new book Imagine: How Creativity Works. Lehrer says it was realising he was in a rut and fleeing to the cabin in the woods sans guitar that gave Dylan (and his brain) permission to relax and free associate.

In other words, when you’re tackling a complex problem that requires creative thinking, mainlining coffee and chaining yourself to your desk is precisely the wrong approach.

Why? As with everything to do with the human brain, the answer is complex.

The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. A small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight.

In fact, by using an EEG, scientists can now predict up to 8 seconds in advance if a test subject is about to achieve a breakthrough. It all comes down to alpha waves. They emanate from the right hemisphere of the brain when its feeling relaxed.

It’s a scientific seal of approval for what we’ve always known: the best insights happen away from your desk and under a warm shower.

Also good when you’re in need of an epiphany? Being sleepy – or drunk. That’s when people’s minds “are drowsy and disorganized, humming with associations that they’d normally ignore. When we need an insight, of course, those stray associations are the source of the answer.”

“Creativity is the residue of time wasted,” Albert Einstein said. With degrees in both neuroscience and literature, Lehrer confidently straddles the disparate worlds of sciences and humanities. After surveying the available research for his book Imagine, one of Lehrer’s biggest tips for people trying to be more creative is to “make time to waste time.”

But unfortunately being relaxed is only half the battle when it comes to being genuinely innovative.

The other half is just plain hard work: the editing and refining of a blinding flash of inspiration into something of significance.

“All great artists and thinkers are great workers, indefatigable not only in inventing, but also in rejecting, sifting, transforming, ordering,” Lehrer says. Beethoven would often rework a musical phrase seventy times before settling on the right one.

What makes some creative geniuses more likely to succeed than others? Dylan, Picasso, Steve Jobs – all very smart, but their IQs weren’t stratospheric. They don’t share a common Myers Briggs profile or any obvious commonalities on personality tests.

What it comes down to, Lehrer says, is grit. The ability to keep working long after everyone else would have given up, to persist with an idea that others mock, to keep on going.

JK Rowling had the raw talent to write her manuscript in coffee shops while her baby daughter slept beside her. But without grit – the strength and resilience needed to get past multiple rejections until someone finally bought her first book – the world would never have met Harry Potter.

So success isn’t just about raw creativity. It’s talent plus effort.

Karl Boothroyd is the founder and CEO of IMA, a specialist B2B marketing agency. IMA is owned by Australia’s largest marketing communications company, The STW Group.

Karl can be contacted at or (02) 4627 8011

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