Thursday, October 15, 2009

Research inspiration: A migraine and a moment of clarity

It’s official. Hard work is totally overrated. At least that seems to be the case when it comes to getting those exhilarating original insights that are the heart of great research projects and breakthroughs. According to recent scientific research, when we’re daydreaming or otherwise not making a conscious effort at thinking (sadly, I’m not sure being drunk counts), our little neurons are valiantly working away, finding connections between concepts and ideas that would never occur to our conscious minds.

I had this experience myself this week. For the last few months, I’ve been working on a handful of disparate strands of research and trying to pull them together into a single coherent research project to start on next month. My last research project examined connections between regulation of women’s sexual behaviour (specifically, prostitution) and anxieties about political and social disorder in late 14th – early 15th century England. This period was marked by endemic war, the emergence of the Lollard heresy, a major rebellion, and the deposition of King Richard II, and I was pretty sure there were opportunities to use my earlier research as a departure point for a meaty analysis involving gender, sexuality, dissent, concepts of misrule, and the production of ethnicity and nationhood. (I’m deliberately being a bit vague here, as I don’t want to give too much away at this point.)

But damn me, try as I might – and my research journal is full of scrawled arrows, borderline illegible mind maps, and ‘see pg. x’ notations to prove it – I could not connect the threads into any sensible pattern. I certainly couldn’t capture the essence of the project in a single sentence, which I usually tend to think means it’s either unmanageably broad or not very well conceptualised.

Then, on Tuesday afternoon, I was whacked with a truly nasty migraine. I get these on a fairly regular basis and for the first few hours, the pain is so intense I can’t think at all. I lose sensation in my left side, see showers of little gold stars and spend a good deal of time vomiting. But once the pain passes (usually about 3 or 4am), I experience an odd kind of euphoria – a sort of fugue state that is more than simply absence-of-pain and in which I float between full wakefulness and sleep for an hour or more. It’s in this state that I often have startlingly clear insights and make totally unexpected connections that I never seem to reach through any normal waking thought process. And it was in that state early on Wednesday morning that I suddenly understood, in a singular moment of pure perception, how all the different threads I’m trying to follow with this new research project connect up into one perfectly coherent unity.

What’s interesting is that in my normal, wide-awake state, I tend to think almost exclusively in words, stacking up my ideas in predictable linear flows of sentences and paragraphs. But my big insights, those intuitive associations and leaps of logic that are the stuff of true intellectual creativity, tend to come to me in my ‘fugue state’ as impressions or patterns that I sense rather than read. They aren’t wholly visual but they aren’t a sensible flow or collection of words, either.

I have a feeling of being somehow disassociated from myself when I’m in this state, and when I was younger the sensation kind of freaked me out. Now, I’ve learned to use it, although I’m bummed that it seems to depend on having the migraine first. I’ve heard of other people experiencing similar connections between migraine and creativity – it must reset the wiring in your brain or something. If you get migraines, does this sound familiar to you? If not, when do you get your best ideas and insights? When you’re working directly on the problem or with your research materials? Daydreaming? Doing something else entirely? And do you get your insights as pictures, words or through some other sense (like those medieval mystics whose visions of the divine were experienced as taste and smell)?

9 comments:

Emrys Eustace, hygt Broom said...

Absolutely no relationship to the company, except that I use its flagship product for my allergies, but it was actually developed as a migraine cure (by a migraine sufferer).

www.sinusbuster.com/

I know it cures sinus congestion so fast it can make my throat sore from the drainage, bam! And the owner/creator swears it does the same for migraines.

Not for the faint of heart, however...

HTH.

Bavardess said...

Thanks for the tip, but I wonder if I lost the bad stuff that goes with migraine, would I also lose the good creative stuff that comes afterwards? (Also, the thought of sticking anything up my nose really squicks me out.)

Gavin Robinson said...

I don't get migraines, but I've had so many good ideas over the last year while doing data entry work or recovering from RSI. Once my job finishes I have to actually do something with these ideas. I've now got two books planned in my head. Will they ever exist?

Bavardess said...

Data entry work seems like the kind of repetitive task that could let your mind wander quite productively. As for the books, just start writing!

ZACL said...

Some people get their inspiration in the early hours, and if deprived of sleep regularly, or turning night into day, I wonder if there is a connection with a form of brainwashing-but in this sense, cleansing of all daily living clutter to free up ideas.

My own form of idea development is a messy one, with lots of reflection required. It is when I reflect I feel inspiration or a certain kind of clarity. I have woken from sleep and crept out of bed to note an idea. That's a common one.

Your migraines almost sound like a naturally occurring chemical induction process that turns into creative energy. I can't fully comprehend that as migraines are soooo darn painful and not ordinarily something that I would seek out or choose to nurture.

Bavardess said...

It's interesting how the early morning hours seem to be a good creative space for a lot of people. I guess it is a time when you can feel quite liberated from the trivia and pressures of day-to-day life.

Digger said...

Ah, late to the party again :) I find things come together when I'm not thinking about them, or working on something else, or walking, etc. But, I have to put in all the hard work ahead of time... the reading, note-taking, fussing and fighting with it consciously first. Getting enough sleep helps, too.

Bavardess said...

For me, walking or running is great when I'm at the stage of refining and clarifying actual sentences and paragraphs (and deciding which 1000 words to take out, as I *always* write too long). But yes, to get the big ideas, I definitely have to have done most of the prep work (especially the reading) first.

Anonymous said...

I actually experience a fugue state during migraines as well, and during this time I also find I am highly creative and at times receive visions. But the fugue state also freaks me out some, as nothing visually seems real to me, including myself...I sort of seem to lose touch with reality a bit. I usually go into a fugue state after dealing with a migraine for several days. I wish I knew why this happens