My illumination chamber

When I was a teenager, I used to bike to work to the downtown of the city. Sometimes a particular coworker/friend would bike home with me most of the way as we both lived in the same general part of the city.

I distinctly remember one night having a philosophical discussion as we pedalled quietly through the dark calm streets. I don't remember the particulars of the discussion anymore, but I recall that that was the first time when I was introduced to the term "Tao." He tried to describe it to me, and said that we were in a state of Tao while we cycled and talked, but that once we began discussing Tao we were no longer in a state of it.

Huh? So, we can be in a state of something until we realise that we're in a state of something and then we're no longer in that state? Is this a Schrödinger's cat kind of problem? Is it like The Game?

It took me a long time, a lot of reading, and personal experiences to begin to understand what my friend tried to explain to me that night all those years ago.

Oddly enough, I had a similar awareness moment just this morning.

First let's rewind about a year or two.. to a presentation I attended on Critical Thinking. Again, I don't remember the particulars of the talk, but I recall that the speaker described the Four Steps of Creativity at one point:
  1. Preparation - Research: Collect information or data
  2. Incubation - Percolation: Milling over collected information
  3. Illumination - Light bulb idea: Aha moment
  4. Implementation - Actual making/creating: Verification
I remember thinking at the time that somehow these steps related to the thinking processes involved when doing Exploratory Testing.

When we "prepare" to test a new feature, we research and discuss that feature. We explore our understanding and ideas and challenge every assumption we have. We *design* tests meant to explore our understanding and observe the results.

There are subtle and simple "aha" moments as we test to help concrete the information we began with. Things change from assumptions to facts, observations, trends and patterns that lead to recommendations.

And yet, things are not always that simple. Sometimes we get stumped when thinking through the problems we face. The answers do not come to us right away. Forcing more information into our heads is not usually the best way to solve a problem, I find. Taking time away from the problem is often what's required... i.e. enter the "Incubation" period.

If you are looking really hard for something and can't find it, sometimes you need to stop looking for it and move onto something else. Often you will find what you are looking for when you don't expect it.

Over the years, I've observed that even though I stop *actively* looking for solutions to a problem, as long as a problem is unsolved, my brain doesn't stop thinking about it. Sometimes, answers come to me in dreams, but I'm not a great sleeper so I don't often remember dreams. More often than not, answers come to me in those moments when I deprive myself of all sensory inputs and let my brain completely relax.

You see, I have a sensory deprivation chamber (of sorts) in my house that I amiably refer to as the Special Hydrogen hydrOxide Wave-particle Emission Room (or SHOWER, for short). I find that this SHOWER helps rejuvenate my energy, and provides a healthy glow to what hair remains on the top of my head.

While I'm in the SHOWER I generally try not to think about any particular problems. It's my only real time to myself all day, so I let the hydrogen hydroxide particles just bounce off my body and lose all sense of everything else.

And then it happens. Many times, under these conditions, ideas just pop into my head! Illumination! Aha moments! I see answers to questions that I had stopped thinking about.

I don't believe that your brain really stops working when you sleep, however, your consciousness needs a break and that's what we get when we sleep. Perhaps a good night's sleep is sufficient incubation period for our minds to mull over the collected information of the previous day(s).

I had noticed previously that I seem to get a lot of interesting ideas when I'm in the SHOWER. However, for some reason, colleagues are not always as happy and eager as I am when I tell them that I was thinking about them in the SHOWER. ;-) I don't know why. It's my illumination chamber.

This morning was slightly different. While in the shower I cheated. I tried to (actively/intentionally) *think* about the answer to a problem I've been working on ... and no new ideas came to me. I think I broke the rules of Tao on this one.

Illumination happens when you let it happen, not when you want it to happen. The other steps in Creativity (and Problem Solving) are a bit more straight-forward, they're done intentionally. This step has a tricky catch to it. Unlike the others, you can't force this one to happen on command.


I look forward to my SHOWER session tomorrow. I'll give into the particles and just let them wash all my worries away.. if only for a short time. If illumination happens, that's cool. If not, then that's cool too. I love my showers. Sometimes I'm even moved to sing. =)

Singing is good. At least then I know that I'm using the creative part of my brain and not the analytical side. I've got all day to use my analytical skills. It's good to have time allotted daily to something creative too. There's something very Tao in that balance.

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