In Season 3, Episode 14 of The Big Bang Theory, physicist Sheldon Cooper gets stuck. He’s trying to figure out why electrons behave as if they have no mass when travelling through a graphene sheet.
He’s focusing all of his mental and physical energy on solving this problem, making him even more eccentric than usual.
Sheldon has been circling around his problem for two or three days, not even sleeping. None of his friends know what to do with him. And then Howard’s girlfriend, Bernadette, intervenes.
Bernadette: Okay, Sheldon. What happens to our neuroreceptors when we don’t get enough REM sleep?Sheldon: They lose their sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine.Bernadette: Which leads to . . . ?Sheldon: Impaired cognitive function!
Writers know that. Even though some writers write into the night, they are only writing into the night when the ideas are coming. When the well is dry, you go to bed – if it’s time to go to bed.
If it’s not time to go to bed, you do something that requires you to think – about anything other than your writer’s block. How many of us have stumbled on to the solution while doing some mindless household chores, like vacuuming?
In The Einstein Approximation, Sheldon is referring to how Albert Einstein came up with Special Relativity while working at the patent office. So, Sheldon decides he will get un-stuck by finding:
a similarly menial job where my basal ganglia are occupied with a routine task, freeing my prefrontal cortex to work quietly in the background on my problem.
For his menial job, he chooses to be a waiter at the Cheesecake Factory Restaurant where Penny is a waitress. Penny can’t believe they hired him, and they didn’t. He just started clearing tables. And this allows his genius “to quietly work in the background” and he finds his solution.
When I’m stuck, I like to sort. Just about anything. The linen cupboard, a jar of coins, a drawer. This works. When you’re cleaning the drawer, you don’t even have to decide what to throw out. Just empty it and put it all back. You’ll automatically and painlessly toss clutter, and you’ll find your solution.
photo from iStockphoto.com #000003830772