Is The 'Eureka' Moment A Myth?

Jun 8, 2012
Originally published on June 14, 2012 3:59 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Where Ideas Come From. Watch Steven Johnson's full Talk — Where Good Ideas Come From — on

People often credit their ideas to individual "Eureka!" moments, but author Steven Johnson says history tells a different story. His Talk takes us from the "liquid networks" of London's coffee houses through Charles Darwin's long, slow hunch to today's high-velocity Web.

About Steven Johnson

Steven Berlin Johnson is the best-selling author of seven books on the intersection of science, technology and personal experience. His most recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, recants stories of great ideas and great thinkers across disciplines.

Johnson's books take the reader on a journey — following the twists and turns his own mind makes as he connects seemingly disparate ideas: ants and cities, interface design and Victorian novels. His breakout 2005 title, Everything Bad Is Good for You, took the provocative stance that our fear and loathing of popular culture is misplaced. He argued that video games and TV shows actually make us smarter.

Johnson doesn't just chronicle technology, he's a longtime innovator in the Web world himself. He was founder and editor in Chief of FEED, one of the earliest online magazines. He also co-founded, a website that maps online conversations to real-world neighborhoods.

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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. If you've ever had an MRI, this noise is probably not a comforting one.


DOUG DIETZ: It kind of has that donk, donk, donk, and then every once in a while - go brrrr. It's a strange environment to be in, for sure.

STEWART: That's Doug Dietz.

DIETZ: I'm an innovation architect at GE Healthcare.

STEWART: About four years ago, Doug had finished designing an MRI machine he was pretty proud of.

DIETZ: Really just patting myself on the back.

STEWART: When his machine up and running, Doug went to see it in action at a pediatric hospital. Excited to watch his design at work. And waiting to be scanned was a girl, about 7 years old. She wasn't so thrilled.

DIETZ: She broke down. Her family broke down right there. And they tried to get the anesthesiologist on the phone, so they could sedate her to get her in, and he wasn't returning his page, so this was a whole kind of health care nightmare thing happening right in front of me.

I remember going out in the hallway and just thinking, you know, I've got to change this.

STEWART: Doug drafted people from the local children's museum, as well as folks who helped families through a child's surgery - nurses, parents. All of them collaborated on how they could change the experience of children getting an MRI scan. They also went to the source and just watched kids play.

DIETZ: You know, if you put three kitchen chairs and a blanket and three kids in there, you know, what are they going to do? They're going to make a castle. They're going to make a spaceship. They're going to make a truck. They're going to make all this stuff, and they're going to play forever.

STEWART: This gave them more direction, the idea of creating an environment where kids will happily play make-believe, even if they are in a hospital. So Doug and his team created the "Adventures Series". They transformed the exam rooms into scenes out of a story book. So the MRI scanner turned into a pirate ship.

DIETZ: And there's like shipwrecks and cool stuff all-around the room, and they walk in on a dock and across a plank.

STEWART: Deep in the jungle.

DIETZ: The graphics on the table looked like a hollowed out canoe.

STEWART: Or an intergalactic expedition.

DIETZ: The whole magnet looks like a spaceship.

STEWART: And the technicians play along, too.

DIETZ: So you hear them say things like this. They'll go, we're going to be going into turbo speed here in a minute, so you'll hear the engines going a little bit louder. And then it's so funny, the kids will come out and they'll go, mum, did you see how fast I was going?

STEWART: A scary experience turned into a playground. All with just a little paint and a little imagination.

DIETZ: I guess that right side of my brain that controls daydreaming is really big.


STEVEN JOHNSON: We take ideas from other people, from people we've learned from, and we stitch them together into new forms and we create something new. That's really where innovation happens.

STEWART: That's Steven Johnson, speaking at TED in 2010.

JOHNSON: Talking about where good ideas come from. I was talking about the environments that have led to unusually innovative thinking, and what we can learn from them.

STEWART: Steven Johnson will join us in just a moment, but let's begin with his TED TALK where he presented a picture of a very old coffee house.


JOHNSON: This is the grand cafe here in Oxford. I took this picture because this turns out to be the first coffee house to open in England in 1650. That's it great claim to fame. And I wanted to show it to you, not because I want to give you the kind of, you know, Starbucks' tour of historic England, but rather because the English coffee house was crucial to the development and spread of one of the great intellectual flowerings of the last 500 years, what we now call the Enlightenment.

And the coffee house played such a big role in the birth of the Enlightenment, in part because of what people were drinking there, right? Because before the - the spread of coffee and tea through British culture, what people drank - both elite and mass folks drank day in and day out, from dawn until dusk, was alcohol, right? Alcohol was the daytime beverage of choice. You would drink a little beer with breakfast and have a little wine at lunch, a little gin, particularly around 1650.

And they'd top it off with a little beer and wine at the end of the day. That was the healthy choice, right, because the water wasn't safe to drink. And so effectively, until the rise of the coffee house, you had an entire population that was effectively drunk all day. And you can imagine what that would be like, right, in your own life, and I know this is true of some of you. If you were drinking all day, and - and then you switched from a depressant to a stimulant in your life, you would have better ideas.

You would be sharper and more alert. And so it's not an accident that a great flowering of innovation happened as England switched to tea and coffee. But the other thing that makes a coffee house important, is the architecture of the space. It was a space where people would get together from different backgrounds, different fields of expertise, and share with the space, as Matt Ridley talked about, where ideas could have sex, right?

This was their conjugal bed, in a sense. Ideas would get together there. And an astonishing number of innovations from this period have a coffee house somewhere in their story. I've been spending a lot of time thinking about coffee houses for the last five years, because I've been kind of in - on this quest to investigate this question of where good ideas come from. What are the environments that lead to unusual levels of innovation? Unusual levels of creativity. What's the kind of environmental - what is the space of creativity?

STEWART: Steven, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

JOHNSON: Thank you. It's great to be here.

STEWART: Steven, the point you wanted to make, and you did make, was that ideas need the proper environment. So is there a universal proper environment?

JOHNSON: The way I would describe it is that there are these kind of recurring patterns that show up again and again in environments. It's not fully universal, but there's certain environments that make it a lot easier to have new ideas. And the coffee house is an example of this, because it's a multidisciplinary space. It's a space where people are getting together, who aren't just working for the same company, but they're working on kind of different kinds of problems.

And when you get people who are working on different kinds of problems together, and get them talking to each other, kind of over their traditional kind of silos and divisions, interesting new possibilities start to happen, because people are making these connections across diverse fields.

STEWART: So once people are in the right kind of environment, one that's got ideas flying and energy going, what else do you need to help an idea come to fruition?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, one of the things that is important is that ideas really initially take form as hunches. They don't come into the world fully realized. The Eureka moment, the light bulb moment, is greatly overrated if you look at the history of ideas. In my research, one of the things I've found is that while it's always appealing to tell the story that way, it's - it actually is much more likely that ideas take long, long periods of time to develop, and they start as - as hunches.

They're hard to put your finger on what it is drawing you to this particular problem but, you know, the people who are good at coming up with truly disruptive, important, new ideas are really good at keeping these hunches alive in their memory, and not letting them kind of fade away.


JOHNSON: Darwin is a great example of this. Darwin himself, in his autobiography, tells the story of coming up with the idea for natural selection as a classic Eureka moment. He's in his study, it's October 1838, and he's reading Malthus actually on population. And, all of a sudden, the basic algorithm of natural selection kind of pops into his head and he says, "Ah, at last I had a theory with which to work." That's in his autobiography.

About a decade or two ago, a wonderful scholar named Howard Gruber went back and looked at Darwin's notebooks from these p - from this period. And Darwin kept these copious notebooks where he wrote down every little idea he had, every little hunch. And what Gruber found was that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for months and months and months before he had his alleged epiphany reading Malthus in October 1838.

There are passages where you can read it and you think like you're reading from a Darwin textbook, from the period before he has this epiphany. And so what you realize is that Darwin, in a sense, had the idea, he had the concept, but was unable to fully thinking it yet. And that is actually how great ideas often happen. They fade into view over long periods of time. Now the challenge...

STEWART: Steven, in your talk you describe how sometimes the best ideas come from necessity. You talk about a medical device that was used to bring down natal death rates. Let's listen.


JOHNSON: ... the internal world of the human brain. A wonderful guy named Timothy Prestero has a company called - an organization called Design That Matters. They decided to tackle this really pressing problem of the terrible problems we have with infant mortality rates in the developing world. One of the things that's very frustrating about this is that we know by getting modern neonatal incubators into, you know, any context, if we can keep premature babies warm basically, it's very simple, we can halve infant mortality rates in those environment.

So the technology is there. We have these. These are standard in all the industrialized worlds. The problem is, if you buy a $40,000 incubator and you send it off to a mid-sized village in Africa, it will work great for a year or two years, and then something will go wrong and it will break, and it will remain broken forever. Because you don't have a whole system of spare parts, and you don't have the on the ground expertise to fix this $40,000 piece of equipment.

And so you end up having this problem where you spend all this money getting aid and all this advanced electronics to these countries, and then it ends up being useless. So what Prestero and his team decided to do was to look around and say, what are the kind of abundant resources in these developing world contexts. And what they noticed was they don't have a lot of DVRs, they don't have a lot of microwaves, but they seem to do a pretty good job of keeping their cars on the road.

There's a Toyota 4Runner on the street in all these places. They seem to have the expertise to keep cars working. So they started to think, could we build a neonatal incubator that's built entirely out of automobile parts? And this is what they ended up coming with. It's called the NeoNurture device. From the outside it looks like a normal little thing you'd find in a modern, western hospital. In the inside, it's all car parts. It's got a fan. It's got headlights for warmth. It's got door chimes for alarm. It runs off a car battery.

And so all you need is the spare parts from your Toyota and the ability to fix a headlight, and you can repair this thing.

STEWART: So Steven, in some cases, it isn't about building the best, the most advanced, thing, but building the thing that deals with real world constraint, or might be most useful. Is this a shift, in a sense, of what makes a good idea?

JOHNSON: I think it is. I mean the - part of the point there is that ideas, by definition, are networks. They're built out of existing other ideas that are around you. No idea comes into the world fully realized, kind of built out of nothing, they're always remixes of other people's ideas and recombinations of other ideas. Which is why diverse environments like the coffee house are so important. So if that's the case, then you have to think about that context.

In the talk and in the book, I talk about this concept of the adjacent possible. What is available to you? What are the building blocks out there? What are the kind of expectations of your audience or of your consumer? And those are both opportunities and limitations. You know, however smart you are, you cannot invent a microwave oven in 1650. It's not part of the, what we call the adjacent possible of that moment.

And the folks who were building that amazing neonatal incubator, they were thinking, OK, look, car parts are part of the adjacent possible in this environment, so we can take those parts and use them as building blocks so that this machine will be more durable, so that people can fix it. So you have to look around you and figure out what's out there, and put yourself in environments where there are, in a sense, more spare parts on the table.


JOHNSON: We like to think our breakthrough ideas, you know, are like that $40,000 brand new incubator, state of the art technology, but more often on - than not, they're cobbled together from whatever parts that happen to be around nearby. And that means that we have to change some of our models of kind of what innovation and deep thinking really looks like.

STEWART: One of the environments you suggest, in your talk and in your book, is the sort of chaotic, busy, jostling place where people are exchanging ideas. But one of our other guests on this episode, Susan Cain, the author of "Quiet: The Power of Introverts", she believes there's an overemphasis on this group dynamic, that introverts who aren't stimulated like that shouldn't be discounted. What are your thoughts?

JOHNSON: You know, I've followed a little bit of Susan's work and I think she makes a very good point. I was certainly in this book championing those kind of overstimulated environments. On the other hand, you do need to have time, this is where I think Susan's point it's - is very taken, you do need to be able to have time to kind of pull away from that. And have that time where all that kind of bustle is kind of sorted and processed in your own mind.

And so actually in my own life, I've often surrounded myself with lots of interesting people and kind of diverse influences, but I've always had this thing where I - almost every night I spend a little bit of time where I just sit and actually just listen to music. I don't answer email or go onto Facebook, or even read, I just kind of sit and listen to music.

And it's during those quieter periods, listening to music, when those kind of connections actually start to get useful to me, and they actually turn into something that I can do something with. So you have to have balance for sure.

STEWART: You and Susan Cain do agree that brainstorming is overrated. Why do you think so?

JOHNSON: You know, one of the problems of brainstorming is just kind of slotting out this special magic hour where you're supposed to be creative and then the remaining like 39 hours of the week or whatever it's supposed to be like doing your job, you know. You know, the important thing is that it's not defined as like, OK, you've got your hour, go to work and think creatively, and then go back to your other job. It's something that's happening in the background all the time.

And the other problem with brainstorming. I mean ideas are very much collaborative. I fully believe that you need to get people together and having a conversation, but the problem is that ideas are often out-of-sync with each other, so the odds are that you'll have exactly the right pieces in that one conference room for that one hour. You're much better off creating kind of public online conversations where you can post an idea and someone can discover it and kind of complete the thought six weeks later or six months later. So you don't have to be all entirely in sync with each other face to face.


JOHNSON: Now the challenge for all of us is how do you create environments that allow these ideas to have this kind of long half-life, right? It's hard to go to your boss and say I have an excellent idea for our organization. It will be useful in 2020. Could you just give me some time to do that? Now a couple of companies like Google, they have innovation time off, 20 percent time where - In a sense those are hunch-cultivating mechanisms in an organization. But that's a key thing.

And the other thing is to allow those hunches to connect with other people's hunches. That's what often happens. You have half of an idea, somebody else has the other half, and if you're in the right environment they turn into something larger than the sum of their parts. So, in a sense, we often talk about the value of protecting intellectual property. For - you know building barricades, having secretive R&D labs. Patenting everything that we have, so that those ideas will remain valuable and people will be incentivized to come up with more ideas, and the culture will be more innovative.

But I think there's a case to be made that we should spend at least as much time, if not more, valuing the premise of connecting ideas and not just protecting them.

STEWART: We're talking to Steven Johnson about where ideas come from. And, Steven, after listening to your talk a couple of times, I kept thinking a lot of what you're talking about is being sort of literally open-minded, to letting other ideas come in and meet up with yours.

JOHNSON: That's a really good way of describing. And I think, you know, there's a kind of an older political kind of multicultural language about being open-minded and valuing diverse environments, which is good and it's a nice kind of asset to have in a society or as an individual. But I think what I've been trying to argue is that there's this additional property that you get when you surround yourselves with people or ideas or perspectives that are different from your own, which is on some basic level you'll be smarter, right?

You'll have more interesting connections. There'll be more building blocks on the table. So it creates a kind of social set of values, almost a political set of values, but it's different. It's not about social justice or tolerance,. It's about being more creative and innovative as a society or an organization or as an individual, because you've got that kind of diversity at your core.

STEWART: Steven, what are some of the myths about where ideas come from that you think just need to be shattered, we need to give it up?

JOHNSON: I think the biggest one is the individual lone genius. There are very smart people out there, but even the brightest of them are standing on the shoulders of giants. You look at somebody like Ben Franklin who was clearly just incredibly talented and, you know, a genius on so many different levels, but he had these amazing collaborations with people. And you can see, in large part, 'cause these things happened through correspondence and a lot of his correspondence is preserved, so you can see him bouncing these new ideas off of people and kind of trying them out, and then getting feedback from his colleagues, and taking the kind of idea off in a new direction.

And so, as smart as Franklin was, he needed that network of influence and inspiration to really become the legend of Ben Franklin himself. And so, you know, ideas are almost always better served if you surround yourself with a truly collaborative web. So I think we can learn from that.


JOHNSON: That is how innovation happens. Chance favors the connected mind. Thank you very much.

STEWART: Steven Johnson, I really enjoyed our talk. Thanks for being on the TED RADIO HOUR.

JOHNSON: I enjoyed it too, Alison, thanks for having me.

STEWART: Steven Johnson. He's the author of the book "Where Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation." You can see another one of Steven's TED Talks, just go to

I'm Alison Stewart. You have been listening to ideas worth spreading on the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.