Monday 14th October, 2013

The Mystery Agatha Christie Couldn’t Solve

We’re living in the heart of an information, scientific and medical revolution, enjoying and benefitting from fresh insights people living as recently as 35 years ago could not have imagined.

Acclaimed for her series of mystery novels, in which detectives Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple deftly solve the most complicated and convoluted (fictional) crimes, there was one mystery that Agatha Christie herself was unable to solve.

Agatha was known to take ‘long, solitary walks’ from her home in Devon. On these walks she would think up the dialogue for the characters in her novels.

However, on a dictaphone recording* discovered by her family after her death, Agatha his heard to remark to herself, “Plots come to one at such odd moments, when you’re walking along the street and examining a hat shop with particular interest. Suddenly a splendid idea comes into your head and you think now that would be a very neat way of covering up the crime so that nobody would get it too soon.”

Agatha never knew why these ‘splendid ideas’ would come to her when she wasn’t actively thinking about writing.

But we do.

We know why brilliant ideas and insights come to us when we’re not focussing on them because, thanks to developments in neuroscience, we understand far more about how our brain thinks than ever before.

Washington University psychologist R. Keith Sawyer explains, “When we take time off from working on a problem, we change what we’re doing and our context, and that can activate different areas of our brain”.

He continues, “If the answer wasn’t in the part of the brain we were using, it might be in another. If we’re lucky, in the next context we may hear or see something that relates distantly to the problem that we had temporarily put aside.”

So, our best ideas, and the solutions to tricky problems, are actually more likely to come to us when we’re not actively trying to think about them.

How’s that for a liberating thought?

This is why amazing, creative ideas often come to us when we’re on the train, taking a stroll or relaxing in the bath or shower.

I’ve been a public speaker for twenty years… but I have never, ever sat down with a blank piece of paper or at a blank computer screen and written a presentation from scratch. Instead, I frequently go for long walks, take long baths, sleep and create other conditions that allow the creative parts of my brain to suggest to me what I should say and how. And do you know, this process has NEVER failed me.

In fact, so used am I to working this way I have grown to trust it. I believe in the process and don’t worry at all if asked to give a talk I’ve never given before. I know that when I provide my brain with the environment in which it can think more ‘creatively’, it will. It has nothing at all to do with being ‘clever’; it has everything to do with trusting my brain to do the job it is designed to do.

Next time you’re asked to give a talk, and are starting to consider what to talk about and (most importantly) how, give this new approach to creativity a try. Go for a walk. Take a shower or bath. Let your mind wander. You may be amazed where the process takes you.

(*If you’d like to hear Agatha Christie speaking about her process for coming up with ideas for her books, watch episode three of ‘A Very British Murder‘ on the BBC iPlayer.)

Categories: Big ideas, Think differently

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