Flashes of insight are so important that scholars have written about them for centuries. The best description comes from an early classic of military strategy, On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The word “strategy” entered the English language in 1810, when Napoleon’s success as a battlefield general made him emperor of Europe. His enemies started studying how he did it so they could learn it too and defeat him. Clausewitz’s account of Napoleon’s strategy matches amazingly well what modern neuroscience tells us about flashes of insight.
Clausewitz gives us four steps. First, you take in “examples from history” throughout your life and put them on the shelves of your brain. Study can help, by putting more there. Second comes “presence of mind,” where you free your brain of all preconceptions about what problem you’re solving and what solution might work. Third comes the flash of insight itself. Clausewitz called it coup d’oeil, which is French for “glance.” In a flash, a new combination of examples from history fly off the shelves of your brain and connect. Fourth comes “resolution,” or determination, where you not only say to yourself, “I see!”, but also, “I’ll do it!”