John Cleese, Graham Wallas, and preparation for insight

Monty Python’s John Cleese has given a number of talks over the years about creativity. Today runner and academic Peter Francis tweeted out a link to a talk Cleese gave that nicely echoes what I talk about in REST:

In the video, Cleese talks about discovering the power of the subconscious to help you solve problems– if you do the work first.

I’ve transcribed the critical section, which starts at 1:39:

If I was working on a sketch in the evening, and I got stuck. I would think about it a bit. And then if I went to bed, woke up the next morning and made a cup of coffee, and then I’d go over and sit down and look at it again, 9 times out of 10 I would have the solution.

And I found this absolutely extraordinary: that overnight while I was asleep, the answer just popped up, and when I sat down in the morning after a moment or two of looking at this problem that had completely stumped me the previous night, I saw how to do it.

And what is more, I began to realize that in the morning I didn’t even quite see what the problem had been the previous night.

So this business of sleeping on it, this overnight incubation that went on in my unconscious was an extraordinary phenomenon.

But it did depend on putting the work in the previous evening. You see what I mean: i couldn’t just go out to dinner and go to bed and wake up with an idea. I had to do the thinking. But if I primed the pump, then the ideas came.

So that was an extraordinary discovery.

Then the second: I wrote a script with Graham Chapman, and then, to my great embarrassment, I mislaid it. I was very embarrassed, and I didn’t want to go to graham and say I’ve lost it, it was stupid of me to have lost it.

So I sat down, and I put in a blank sheet, and I recalled it from memory, and I wrote it out. Then, a few hours later, of course, I found the original. I thought, “Oh I must compare the two and see, did I remember the best bits?”

What I discovered was that the version that I remembered was better. The phrasing of certain jokes was better. The construction was slightly better. It was just a bit less verbose, a little bit clearer and more precise. It was better.

I thought, that must mean that between writing the first script and writing the second one, my mind had gone on working on the problems, and actually improving them.

So again I had a perfect example of how one’s subconscious, if you prime the pump properly, will go on giving you answers, as a reward— not as a gift, you have to work for it.

Fascinating.

Fascinating indeed. The first example is part of a bigger phenomenon that I’ve talked about before (Linus Pauling described it, for example). The second mirrors experiments that show that the subconscious continues working on problems even after we’ve turned out attention elsewhere– something I talk about in the book. It’s also a story that Cleese has told elsewhere: here’s an account of it in Fast Company from late 2014. And both illustrate Graham Wallas’s argument that creative insight usually follows intensive focus on a problem, followed by a period of incubation.

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