Archive for dreams

Hamilton and the “Light-Bulb” Moment

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 5, 2018 by telescoper

In yesterday’s post I mentioned in passing the bridge (Broom Bridge) beside which William Rowan Hamilton first wrote down the fundamental result of quaternions after having a flash of genius while walking from Dunsink Observatory into Dublin.

That reminded me last night that a while ago I read a piece in Physics World (which you can read here, but only if you have a subscription) about whether breakthroughs in physics occur very often in the way of Hamilton’s – through sudden flashes of inspiration or, as they are called in the article,  “light-bulb moments” –  or are more often the result of solid hard graft, sweat and spadework? In other words, how much is inspiration and how much perspiration?

The piece includes some interesting comments from distinguished scientists about their own “Eureka” moments, which I’m sure will resonate with many researchers, not only physicists. Incidentally, the article refers to such moments as “claritons”, a word I’d never heard before, presumably intended to evoke solitons. It is interestin, though just how strongly the light-bulb has become so strongly associated with this sort of brainwave. You can find a short discussion of this here.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure that  most scientists – even the eminent individuals interviewed for the Physics World piece – have spent a large part of their time “stuck”. I know I have, but then I’m not really eminent anyway. In the long run it’s probably good to go through such periods as I think they’re essential for intellectual development, but they’re undoubtedly extremely frustrating at the time. How you get “unstuck” is a very mysterious process. I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that when you get really immersed in, say, a research problem, your subconscious brain gets drawn into what you think is a fully conscious process, to the extent that even when you’re apparently not thinking about something you really are. I’ve had ideas come to me in all kinds of weird situations: watching ducks paddling on a pond, listening to music, walking in a park, and even pushing a trolley around a supermarket. Often it seems that it’s precisely when you’re not thinking that you have your best ideas. It’s not always clear what acted as the trigger, but and when it is it is often something quite abstract. In the case I mentioned of the ducks on the pond it was just a question of thinking about reference frames. It was a nudge in the right direction, but I still had to do quite a lot of work to finish the calculation. Come to think of it, it’s usually at that conceptual level that such things happen rather than in the detailed working, at least in my case.

The Physics World piece also talks about ideas coming through dreams. That has happened to me too, but I think it’s basically the same phenomenon that I’ve just discussed. It seems to me that dreams are a product of your brain sorting through recent events or experiences and trying to make sense of them in terms of others it has filed away. This can help with a research problem by flagging up a connection with something else hidden away. I can remember at least two occasions when I’ve woken up from a dream with an exact understanding of what I’d been doing wrong and how I could fix it. It’s great to wake up in the morning with that kind of feeling!

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are some general lessons. One is that if you are going to be successful at research you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’m writing as a physicist, but I imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well as doing science. Being “stuck” on a problem is an essential part of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword, which usually means that my facility for thinking laterally, which is so essential for solving cryptic puzzles, is not operating well. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive, and you should never feel guilty about taking a thinking break.

I’d be interested to receive examples of other “light-bulb” moments through the comments box. I’d also welcome comments from neuroscientists on my extremely naïve comments about how the brain works in such situations.

 

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Those “Light-Bulb” Moments..

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 11, 2016 by telescoper

Last week I read a piece in the October edition of Physics World (which you can read here, but only if you have a subscription) about whether breakthroughs in physics occur through sudden “light-bulb moments”, or are more often the result of solid hard graft? The piece includes some interesting comments from distinguished scientists about their own “Eureka” moments, which I’m sure will resonate with many researchers, not only physicists. Incidentally, the article refers to such moments as “claritons”, a word I’ve never heard before, presumably a soliton of clarity…

I’m pretty sure that everyone who works in science – even the eminent individuals interviewed for the Physics World piece – has spent a large part of their time “stuck”. I know I have. In the long run it’s probably good to go through such periods as I think they’re essential for intellectual development, but they’re undoubtedly extremely frustrating at the time. How you get “unstuck” is a very mysterious process. I’m not a neuroscientist, but it seems to me that when you get really immersed in, say, a research problem, your subconscious brain gets drawn into what you think is a fully conscious process, to the extent that even when you’re apparently not thinking about something you really are. I’ve had ideas come to me in all kinds of weird situations: watching ducks paddling on a pond, listening to music, walking in a park, and even pushing a trolley around a supermarket. Often it seems that it’s precisely when you’re not thinking that you have your best ideas. It’s not always clear what acted as the trigger, but and when it is it is often something quite abstract. In the case I mentioned of the ducks on the pond it was just a question of thinking about reference frames. It was a nudge in the right direction, but I still had to do quite a lot of work to finish the calculation. Come to think of it, it’s usually at that conceptual level that such things happen rather than in the detailed working, at least in my case.

The Physics World piece also talks about ideas coming through dreams. That has happened to me too, but I think it’s basically the same phenomenon that I’ve just discussed. It seems to me that dreams are a product of your brain sorting through recent events or experiences and trying to make sense of them in terms of others it has filed away. This can help with a research problem by flagging up a connection with something else hidden away. I can remember at least two occasions when I’ve woken up from a dream with an exact understanding of what I’d been doing wrong and how I could fix it. It’s great to wake up in the morning with that kind of feeling!

I know it’s wrong to draw inferences about other people from one’s own particular experiences, but I do feel that there are general lessons. One is that if you are going to be successful at research you have to have a sense of determination that borders on obsession. You have to immerse yourself in it and be prepared to put long hours in. When things are going well you will be so excited that you will find it as hard to stop as it is when you’re struggling. I’m writing as a physicist, but I imagine it is the just same for other disciplines.

The other, equally important, lesson to be learned is that it is essential to do other things as well as doing science. Being “stuck” on a problem is an essential part of mathematics or physics research, but sometimes battering your head against the same thing for days on end just makes it less and less likely you will crack it. The human brain is a wonderful thing, but it can get stuck in a rut. One way to avoid this happening is to have more than one thing to think about.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been stuck on the last clue in a crossword. What I always do in that situation is put it down and do something else for a bit. It could even be something as trivial as making a cup of tea, just as long as I don’t think about the clue at all while I’m doing it. Nearly always when I come back to it and look at it afresh I can solve it. I have a large stack of prize dictionaries to prove that this works!

It can be difficult to force yourself to pause in this way. I’m sure that I’m not the only physicist who has been unable to sleep for thinking about their research. I do think however that it is essential to learn how to effect your own mental reboot. In the context of my research this involved simply turning to a different research problem, but I think the same purpose can be served in many other ways: taking a break, going for a walk, playing sport, listening to or playing music, reading poetry, doing a crossword, or even just taking time out to socialize with your friends. Time spent sitting at your desk isn’t guaranteed to be productive, and you should never feel guilty about taking a thinking break.

I’d be interested to receive examples of other “light-bulb” moments through the comments box. I’d also welcome comments from neuroscientists on my extremely naïve comments about how the brain works in such situations.

P.S. It’s interesting how the light-bulb has become so strongly associated with the sort of brainwave discussed in this piece. Here’s a short discussion.

 

 

On the Interpretation of Dreams

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on September 11, 2013 by telescoper

Last night I had a peculiar dream in which, for reasons obscure, I hijacked one of the dishes of the Ryle Telescope at the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory in Cambridge and drove it at high speed along a railway line all the way to Oxford (pursued by an ice cream van). To non-astronomers this probably sounds completely barking, but I should point out that the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory is located at the site of Lord’s Bridge, a former railway station on the (now defunct) line between Cambridge and Oxford and some of the telescope dishes move along sections of the old track. Of course the track no longer extends all the way to Oxford, and in any case there would be bridges under which one of the 13-metre antennae of the Ryle Telescope could not possibly pass. Such mundane considerations don’t matter in the world of dreams, however, and the whole escapade was like a madcap chase scene from a daft movie. I woke up chuckling.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamt about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the recent past. In this particular case I recall reading an article about the possibility (now, I believe, shelved) that the Oxford-Cambridge railway might be reinstated. I’ve also been reading tweets and facebook messages from people currently at a radio-astronomy workshop in the Netherlands.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system. Not sure how the ice cream van fits into this scheme though.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard “anxiety” dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape? I think it’s obvious that this dream is closely related to impostor syndrome.

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career: starting in Sussex, then in London, Nottingham, Cardiff and then back to Sussex. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

That kind of dream is quite disconcerting, especially since it’s recurrent. But I can give an example that’s even weirder. As regular readers of this blog – both of them – will know, I was unwell for a period last summer. During the worst of this episode I was confined for a while in a psychiatric clinic. I wasn’t there for very long (perhaps 3-4 days) but I didn’t really keep track of time very well and in retrospect it seems I was there much longer than that. I was also heavily sedated for a lot of the time I was there. The effect of this was to blur the distinction between sleeping and waking almost completely so I literally didn’t know whether I was conscious or unconscious.

Now I know for a fact that I didn’t have any visitors when I was in that place. However, I have perfect recollection of a time when a young man (a former student of mine of Cardiff University) came into my room, sat down beside my bed and opened a discussion about physics, his plans for doing a PhD in Early Universe Cosmology, and various other topics to do with books and films. Looking back on this I realize that the conversation I’d imagined was actually a kind of synthesis of bits of other conversations I’d previously had with the same person in a different environment (i.e. my old office in Cardiff University). The peculiarity is that I now remember that imagined pastiche of a conversation as if it were actually real, and it has always been difficult for me to convince myself that it didn’t happen. It’s almost as if the filing system had gone into reverse, pulling old memories out of their drawers and sticking them back in my consciousness.

Related to this (possibly) are various memories I have of very early childhood. These are often very vivid, but in many cases completely at odds with facts that I’ve subsequently established. I think what has happened in such examples is that I haven’t actually remembered the event in question, but have been told things about it so frequently that a memory has somehow been constructed to accommodate the narrative.

Over a year on I still find the clinic episode quite scary to think about. I think that’s mostly because it’s an extreme example of how one’s perception of what is real and remembered versus what is imaginary and dreamt can get confused. Am I really writing this? Or am I dreaming? Are you really reading it? Are you dreaming? Wake-up!