Weekend Edition: Where Do You Do Your Dreaming and Thinking?

Weekend Edition: Where Do You Do Your Dreaming and Thinking?
I have a strong interest in the creative side of engineering. Some would say this doesn’t even exist, since engineering is at most times closer to a science than an art. And when you’re in the thick of developing a product, it’s often times troubleshooting and process improvements (both being very important, in their own right). Even in the “artistic” side of engineering, a lot of the process is trying out your ideas and iterating on them. But I still think that initial seed of an idea is quite important, regardless of how little of total time it might take (1-2% maybe? It can’t be much). Being able to work through an idea or two in your head or smash other concepts together is all that’s required to get started on a project. But when do people really come up with these ideas?
  • In The Shower — You’re standing there, water pouring off your head and body. And you know what you’re thinking about? Well, hopefully how clean you’re getting. But aside from that, probably not much. And that’s a great time for random thoughts to pop into your head. Engineers tend to think about engineering things; and maybe the way the water drips out of the edge of the shower makes you think about the thread design on the nozzle or ways to use teflon tape.
  • While Running — Exercise tends to clear my head, unless I’m really tired or out of shape (hey, like now!). But on a good day, when my lungs aren’t screaming at me, I can use my running time to also run through scenarios from work or try and dream up solutions to problems I’m having.
  • At the bench — I’m a firm believer that invention does not take place in a vacuum. If  I’m working on electronics, it’s unlikely that I’ll have a worthwhile idea about airplane wing fluid dynamics that will have any substance in a real context. The expertise isn’t there. So being at the bench and having a stroke of inspiration, even a tangential bit of inspiration, can be very useful in brainstorming new ideas (i.e. working on precision electronics and think up a new use or application for them to be investigated later).
  • At the computer? — I state this as a question because I’m not sure inspiration for a non-programming type of engineering will happen when sitting in front of a computer. Sure, there is lots of information at your fingertips, but does that help or hurt? My friend and former co-worker Dave Young recently wrote about this topic and how his former mentor advised him against dreaming and brainstorming at the computer; having the ease of use of that information will limit you.
  • On the commode — Oh c’mon, like you’ve never come up with a brilliant idea while sitting there. Don’t lie to yourself! I can name 3 or 4 articles that were dreamt up (note: not inspired) while my mind wandered and my body did its thing. And no, I won’t name the articles.
  • While Sleeping — This is tricky because you not only have to dream up an idea, you need to re-form it upon waking. I’ve never successfully translated an idea in a dream to a research topic, but I’m sure some people out there have. And there are stories of important processes and products being truly dreamed up and then developed during waking time.  For example (though it’s a more science than engineering example): Friedrich Kekul von Stradonitz discovered the benzene ring structure in his dreams.
  • In a Flotation/Isolation Tank — This is one I have tried and succeeded with before. You can read more about them on Wikipedia, but the basic idea is you remove all external stimulus and your brain utilizes all that excess brain power. For me, my mind went bonkers just thinking about idea after idea for a product I was working on at the time. The ideas didn’t pan out, but the sheer amount of seed ideas was unbelievable. If you’ve never tried a flotation tank, I highly recommend it. Doubly so if you have a mental block or need some inspiration and new ideas.
  • While Driving — Though I highly recommend keeping your eyes on the road, I find my brain is more reactive than proactive. And when driving on long trips (and not listening to my favorite electronics podcast), my mind has drifted to aspects of work and how I might develop a new technology. It’s also important for me to remove stimulus such as music or talk radio. The rhythmic nature of the road can induce a sort of trance and your mind can easily wander (unless a truck decides to cut you off and hopefully your instinct kicks back in). 
  • While Sitting Idly — Scott Adams, author of the popular engineering cartoon Dilbert, also keeps a regular blog where he expounds upon engineering concepts and life in general. One of his recent posts was about the creative process and the necessity for being bored in order to come up with something truly creative.  This is an extension of the flotation tank idea, but expanded into everyday life. If you consistently have stimulus from your phone, computer, TV, movies and other gadgets and gizmos, your brain will never have enough downtime to really crank on an idea.

One thing to note is that not all of these places are well-suited for capturing ideas. And perhaps that’s a future post for me or my other writers: How to capture ideas in a realistic and reliable way. Especially when you’re in the shower. Hmm…perhaps I’ve just been inspired to invent a waterproof pen! Do I need to “writing a blog post” as a place I dream up ideas?

Also of note, I don’t list items that are normally associated with work on this list: writing emails, attending meetings, talking to vendors, etc. Sure, all of these things might be necessary in the execution of creative ideas, but not the creation of the ideas. So I always find it interesting when a company encourages “innovation” and yet schedules no down time or time and place to tinker.

What about you? Where do you do your dreaming? Have you had inspiration strike in a consistent place? Do you do something repetitively in order to try and come up with that idea that will be “the next big thing”? Does your work ask you to perform in a creative capacity and if so, do they give you time to do so? Please let us know in the comments!


Thanks to v i p e z for the photo.


Hi Chris,

Many of these ‘states of mind’ are very similar if you think about it. I have listened to a number of Physiology lectures that talk about memory and how the brain functions. Their theory is – and I hope to repeat this correctly, as follows:

Normal thinking can only hold so much information that you can pay attention to at once. So if you have a complex issue you may have too many interconnections or interfaces that you can hold in your head at once. This could be physical connections or multiple maths equations they just will not link together or just get your head round to big an idea.

However long term memory and notable REM sleep has a way of compacting things and finding ways of storing large amount of information. Part of this is done by overlapping things or making connections. For example I bet most of us all have the word ‘Cat’ linked to the words ‘Dog’ and ‘Milk’ but not to each other. So the theory goes that during these brain idle modes the brain is slowly making connections in the background – like a massive database sort and compactor. Then when you re access an idea, you magically find new connection that you had not considered before, and possible ones that solve your problem.

I used to get my good ones whilst smoking …
… Took me a while to realise it wasn’t the nicotine but being away from the bench & giving the grey matter a rest whilst chatting to others!

I get my ideas while walking.
From or to work, lunch, the toilet. Or just walking in circles around my office.
Maybe I would have ideas while driving too, If I had a car.

My best ideas come while I’m working but doing mundane things. I would say next best is working with my kids on project, my mind will wander a little into the ‘what if’s’. Reading random USPTO docs helps..

Definitely showers. However, exercising is also a great way to think about things. When I was frustrated with a homework set, I would get up to get a drink of water or something, and when walking down the hall, it would come to me. So walking is good. 🙂

I never get anything creative out of sitting on the computer. Too many distractions. And driving, well, in order to keep awake, I end up singing very loudly, so not much thinking can go on there. 😀

When I have nothing else to distract my attention (which is what most of the list has in common). Definitely showers. And walking/on public transit.

I’ve always called this the “back burner”. When I don’t exactly know how to attack a problem I let it simmer on the back burner and then typically during a shower or a walk to the store a solution will bubble up to the top. (I wish I could figure out how to bill clients for that time.)

Rarely sitting at my computer since it’s an electric distraction machine.

In the car or as I’m trying to fall asleep are my two major sources of eureka moments. I have a longer than typical grad student commute, but I actually enjoy it as a time to be disconnected for awhile. As far as bed, I apparently once muttered “PV=nRT, dammit!” and promptly fell asleep. My husband has made fun of this ever since.

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