How “Tip of your tongue” moments help explain creativity
Have you ever had a situation where you were in an argument with someone, but couldn’t find the perfect thing to say.
And then hours (or even days) later, the perfect response pops into your head for what you should have said back then.
This is what is known as a L’esprit de l’escalier (French), Treppenwitz (German) or ostroumie na lestnitse (Russian). All of them roughly translate to Staircase Wit, and come from a story of French Philosopher Denis Diderot, who was left speechless when at a dinner party.
“a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and doesn’t come to himself again until at the bottom of the stairs” (“l’homme sensible, comme moi, tout entier à ce qu’on lui objecte, perd la tête et ne se retrouve qu’au bas de l’escalier”).
In this case, “the bottom of the stairs” refers to the architecture of the kind of hôtel particulier or mansion to which Diderot had been invited. In such houses, the reception rooms were on the étage noble, one floor above the ground floor.
To have reached the bottom of the stairs means to have definitively left the gathering.
So what can we learn about creativity from this?
Well, you probably have experienced the feeling of an idea coming to you out of nowhere. Especially at times when you aren’t expecting it, like when you are in the shower.
The question is why this happens.
Why you come up with ideas long after you started thinking of them
Why do we sometimes find the correct, creative answers long after setting our mind the challenge?
The answer seems to be related to a process called incubation, one of the five stages of the creative process.
When you set your brain a creative challenge, not all of the activity happens in the part of your mind you are consciously aware of (your working memory). The brain will continue to work on the problem in its subconscious after you have stopped consciously thinking of it as well.
This may take some time, but this subconscious incubation also allows the brain to try out original, less efficient networks between ideas in the brain to see if it comes up with a solution.
And if it finally does find a creative solution, that is when it might come into your consciousness in a moment of inspiration.
This is also why you might feel a “tip of the tongue” moment, where an answer is just between the conscious and subconscious.
An by understanding what is happening in your brain, it might shed some light on why you couldn’t come up with that snappy comeback when you were in the middle of the argument.