Epiphany is one of those great words in the English language, meaning a moment of sudden realization. It usually feels quite profound and transformative in some way. As writers, you will all know about writing epiphanies. You will also likely know that many of them happen when you are not at your computer or journal, actually working on the writing that the epiphany is about.
I have had two such epiphany moments in the last week. One at about 2am when I was awake. Just because. And one at about 11pm as I was falling asleep, writing some of the most profound words you will never read. Why, oh why, do all my moments of insight and sudden brilliance happen when I am ill–placed to do anything productive with them? I was not awake enough to get up at 2am and go and write. And I was warm and cozy. I sometime force myself up at 11pm when I am writing brilliant paragraphs in my head while I’m drifting off, but I can’t always be bothered to do that. So what to do to make something useful of all this insight into my writing?
Some of the brilliant thoughts are not that hard to remember. For example, the 11pm moment of brilliance revealed that chapter 5 and 6 are in the wrong order, and that chapter 6 is horrible because it’s about the wrong thing. It’s not all wrong, but it needs to be refocused. I was able to remember that, run the idea by Lovely Husband as a sounding board, and it’s in my head now. So that’s alright then. But I have no idea what the 2am moment was about now. I think it might have been nonsense, but what if it wasn’t?
Some of the words I write in my head at 11pm are probably rubbish. But the ones I have made myself get up and write down, when re-read with a clearer head, have actually been words I can work with. This is really frustrating. I want the brilliance – the muse if you like – to be there when I am working, during the day, in clothes rather than pajamas (although I am often found in pajamas at midday). But I do wonder if some of those late night epiphanies and insights do eventually make their way into my daytime writing?
Is the brain like a giant filing cabinet storing everything you see, hear, do, read, etc., waiting for you to recall it at some point? Or is it structured to retain information for a certain period and then clear it out to make way for new knowledge because it has limited RAM? Kind of like clearing a cache, perhaps? My preliminary reading suggests that, while it may feel like your brain clears its cache of certain memories, especially papers you have read or important references, it actually doesn’t. But it’s not quite like a filing cabinet either.
Current research suggests that the brain can probably store unlimited amounts of information indefinitely. Memories are encoded and stored according in groups of neurons connected to the parts of the brain that generated them. So one memory can actually be stored in more than one place, in parts: one part associated with smell, one with sight, and one with the emotions associated. Like seeing and holding your newborn for the first time and smelling their skin. That memory would be reconstructed from the different constituent bits when given an appropriate cue, like looking at a photograph of you and your baby. Research suggests that if you can’t recall information, it’s likely because of a mismatch between the stored information and the cue, or a problem with the retrieval process.
Further, research suggests that repetition consolidates memory, and makes it more likely to be stored in the brain and recalled at will. So, reading the same thing or seeing the same thing many times makes for a potentially more durable memory than something seen only once or twice. This is what interests me in relation to my epiphany moments. With my book, I am thinking about and planning and reworking the argument all the time, over and over. Many of my late night musings and brilliant paragraphs written in my head are about parts of the book – the same parts thought about in different ways. So, I am wondering if my brain isn’t actually able to treat those as repeated events, and consolidate them so that, with the right cues, some of that can come back into my conscious writing during the workday.
It’s an intriguing thought: some of the late night epiphanies do pop up during the day, right? You wake up thinking you won’t remember and then you read a paper or chat to someone and up it comes, ready to be acted on. Some of them seem to be lost in the mists of amnesia, but maybe the right cue just hasn’t been offered, or there wasn’t enough consolidation to store that memory in multiple places, making it more likely to be recalled.
What I take away from this ramble is that, far from being a problem, these late night moments of insight I cannot always write down, or act on in the moment, are all working like repeated events that my brain is storing and consolidating. If I’m constantly chipping away at the book in all this thinking and scribbling and formal writing during the day and mental writing late at night, then the epiphanies actually are a form of consolidation, where my lovely brain has put some pieces together and gone: oh right! It should look like this! That then stays with me because it’s actually a gathering of many little thoughts and moments all together.
So, perhaps instead of being frustrated, I should just go with it. Encourage the writing in my head of the best paragraphs people may never read, and the 2am flashes of genius and the aha! moments while I’m driving or cooking. If I let them swirl around, and form memories of a sort, and these all add up through consolidation, they will find their way in one form or another into the book and into anything else I am working on. Scribbling in your research journal, chatting about them with friends, whatsapping them to your virtual writing group – these acts all further consolidate and settle those thoughts, encouraging your brain to really back them up. The more we find ways to write and talk about our research thoughts and musings, I am sure, the better our writing will be for it.