I'm mulling over an interesting article in The New Yorker -- "The Eureka Hunt" by Jonah Lehrer (7/28/08). I'm always interested in the brain and where creative problem-solving comes from.
Cognitive neuroscience is delving deeper into Left Brain, Right Brain problem-solving. (Right Brain sees the forest; Left Brain sees the trees.)
The Right Brain is responsible for that sudden aha! of insight (which everyone knows is way cooler than logically slogging through a puzzle to a solution). I think insight is often mixed up with revelation -- which gets me back to my "from out there" vs "from deep inside" fascination (more).
Insight appears to occur like this:
Preparatory phase: Brain blocks out everything to focus on the problem. You are filling your brain with all the ingredients.
Search phase: Brain starts looking for solutions in all the relevant places (which get frustrating because almost all possibilities your brain comes up with are wrong). You are frustrated but totally immersed in the problem. Crossroads: if you get too clenched up about focusing in, or take Adderall-type drugs, or over-caffeinate, or start talking through your process, the Left Brain takes over from there and your path becomes analytical.
Relaxation phrase: not finding an immediate answer, the mind starts wandering -- you get up to go to the bathroom, to take a walk, to go on vacation... then shazzam!! -- the answer appears.
Recognition phase: When the insight comes, you know it's right. This is the function of the prefrontal cortex, the orchestra conductor, which knows way more than you are conscious of and "lights up" when all the right connections have been made to deliver the insight. Hallucinogenic drugs make this part of your brain light up too -- you think you've had a great insight, but there is no content.
In the history of science "the big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they're doing something that has nothing to do with their research." Answers come when you least expect them. Intense concentration comes at the cost of diminished creativity. This is why Google installed ping-pong tables in its offices. Being in a good mood also helps relax the mind to let insight surface.
I know this phenomenon: immersion to the point of total impasse and frustration; take a break; out pops an answer. Years ago, I had a system. Work all day on a problem (like how to present some new quality assurance data). After work, go to the gym with the problem on my mind. I'd gradually forget about it while I worked out. Then, go sit in the steam room. POP! A new idea! When they took out the steam room, I went all to hell...