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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« Alzheimer's Bonds | Main | Varieties of Scientific Deception »

June 26, 2014

Absence Makes the Ideas Flow?

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Posted by Derek

Something I've noticed for many years now is that I tend to get the most number of chemical ideas - bench chemistry relating to my current work - when I'm in a big conference room far removed from my actual lab. Take me off site, send me to a distant meeting, and I get all sorts of brainstorms about what I should be doing in front of my hood. Does anyone else have this problem (if it is a problem?) I write down all the things I'm thinking of, naturally, so I can actually get around to doing them. But it's funny how the ideas seem to come out of hiding once I'm not actually doing the work.

Comments (53) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Anonymous on June 26, 2014 11:11 AM writes...

I get some of my best ideas while in the shower. Seriously.

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2. Anonymous on June 26, 2014 11:12 AM writes...

I get some of my best ideas while in the shower. Seriously.

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3. Mark on June 26, 2014 11:14 AM writes...

First time poster, long time reader...

Anyway, I'm a grad student in math, not a chemist, but I've definitely noticed that I get lots of new ideas when I'm at conferences. I'm not sure if it's because I'm breaking my usual routine of sitting in the office, or if it's because I've got nothing else to think about during talks on stuff I don't care about, or what, but I've definitely noticed it.

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4. Bernard Munos on June 26, 2014 11:22 AM writes...

I noticed years ago that I have my best ideas when I go back to Stanford. Don't know why. Probably a combination of being relaxed, having time to think, being in a stimulating environment, surrounded by bold thinkers.

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5. First Time Long Time on June 26, 2014 11:43 AM writes...

I go for a run or bike ride most days at lunch time, and usually get my best thinking about my projects done then.

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6. steve on June 26, 2014 12:06 PM writes...

I agree with Anonymous - the shower works. I also do my best singing there (at least there's usually no one else there to tell me otherwise...).

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7. snurf on June 26, 2014 12:20 PM writes...

I got all my ideas in the shower, or in the London Underground. But nothing while I'm at work.

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8. DCRogers on June 26, 2014 12:38 PM writes...

I get many of my best as I mull over ideas while I sleep. Seriously. I wake up and the framework of an answer is just left in my head.

Kekule got nothing on me! :)

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9. anon on June 26, 2014 12:39 PM writes...

This is one of the best things about going to conferences. I suppose you're always thinking about how the work of others might be useful to you.

The same goes for short placements in other labs. The couple of months I spent in industry during my PhD were a very fertile time - a change is as good as a rest!

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10. petros on June 26, 2014 12:52 PM writes...

Remember Kekule's purported dream

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11. Anonymous on June 26, 2014 1:44 PM writes...

Biking in the forest, better if the forest in the mountains - pretty a lot of ideas came to my mind this way.

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12. Helical Investor on June 26, 2014 2:23 PM writes...

Behavioral studies have shown that having a 'current focus' can diminish creativity. That is why 'taking a walk' or other distancing activities, ones where you can't act right away, can be creatively stimulating.

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13. CMCguy on June 26, 2014 2:33 PM writes...

Sounds like maybe you are angling for attending more conferences? Does it also occur when you go on vacations as well? I think anything that helps break up a daily or weekly routine might be appropriately stimulating to allow new are percolating ideas to bubble to consciousness. Also may be the fact going to conference act as primer as expect be hearing about other people "successful" ideas.

I think sometimes a PhD education frequently prompts 24/7 type commitments where begin to only rely on PI to come up with the ideas that it can take a while to learn (or relearn) how to trigger ones own creativity. On the other hand there are PIs, in the minority I fear, that are skilled in both stimulating and building tools where people can more readily engage their own mental processes.

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14. DTV Engineer on June 26, 2014 2:34 PM writes...

My boss used to kid me about installing a shower in my office because that's where I came up with the most creative solutions to problems. One side effect of being at the bench is that it's to easy to focus on what is in front of me at the moment, and lose sight of what it could or should be instead. Getting away so that I am free to think without constraints or interruptions is one of the best things I can do.

One of the sad realities in my shop (and in most, I suspect) is that people assume that someone not engaged in obvious physical activity is goofing off. There seems to be little practical regard for quiet thought, but plenty of repercussions for ill-considered action.

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15. Cellbio on June 26, 2014 2:56 PM writes...

Same thing happens to me, in fact I miss much of the presentations as thoughts consume me. I also find the clarity of 3am is when I find the flaws in my thinking, or recall an error in execution.

Have also seen the phenomenon inside the hours of the work day. The folks driving programs forward are consumed, the slackers not so much. Once, when a call went out for more programs, all the folks with no work to do stepped forward with ppt presentations of recently published work from top academic labs and were viewed as the best and brightest. Really frustrating. Not that they stepped forward, but in the bad management that did not value execution as much as pointing to new blue sky opportunities.

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16. exchemist on June 26, 2014 3:35 PM writes...

During cardio exercise. Been out of science for over a decade but still get ideas of reasonable studies to do that would be relatively easy and publishable. I actually check back on my old field and have seen some of the things that I think about get done. There's still a lot more good ore in that vein though. (Nothing like working in a new area without all the crazy life science money pushing armies of grad students.)

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17. Anon on June 26, 2014 3:36 PM writes...

Usually towards the middle a vacation I get them. To the point [occasionally] that I put the vacation on hold to look at publications and ask some questions. Maybe it is just the current work environment, but when you aren't enjoying yourself and you are being asked to make something work you get narrow minded.
Unlike when I was learning and given to freedom to wonder as I chose.

My guess is that everyone is really just speaking to the poor work environment. I guess if you step back, it looks like the companies are the ones losing out.

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18. CMCguy on June 26, 2014 4:22 PM writes...

A bit of extrapolation of the comments would suggest we should send a bunch of people to a conference, possibly at Stanford, where have them play basketball and then let them all to take a shower together, then walla! will get a bunch of new ideas. Question is can we get a VC or Government Grant to fund such a venture? Is this the fix for Big Pharma R&D productivity?

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19. Adam Winer on June 26, 2014 4:26 PM writes...

Why do you think Phil Baran goes to the gym everyday?

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20. Sandusky on June 26, 2014 4:30 PM writes...

I would LOVE to take part in that (the shower part at least)!

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21. anonymous on June 26, 2014 4:42 PM writes...

Surprised by the many votes for the shower. I get most of mine while taking a dump.

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22. drunk on June 26, 2014 5:11 PM writes...

When I started in the Lab I remember my best ideas came from discussions with fellow scientists in the pub across the road. To increase creativity we stayed longer. Had some great ideas 'Nobel' winning stuff but couldn't remember any in the morning! The next time we tried writing them down as the night progressed to avoid loosing them, sadly we couldn't read the writing in the morning. That is my excuse for no 'Nobel' prize.

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23. weirdo on June 26, 2014 5:14 PM writes...

--Why do you think Phil Baran goes to the gym everyday?--

Um, to look good in a lavender floral bird shirt by Etro and psychadelic medallion tie by E. Zegna?

(Sorry, had to go there . . . )

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24. See Arr Oh on June 26, 2014 5:24 PM writes...

Whenever I'm stuck on an idea, I take a walk in the woods. Or the hallway. Or the parking lot.

Clears my head and gives me a chance to think. Conferences also work - further away, the better!

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25. bob on June 26, 2014 5:55 PM writes...

I smoke a bowl... for ideas

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26. Anonymous on June 26, 2014 6:12 PM writes...

I get my best ideas while taking smoking breaks at work. I'll often pop out of a team meeting for a quick ciggy, and then burst back in with all the answers. If it wasn't for the smell I bring back with me I think colleagues would assume I sneak off to consult with the Oracle.

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27. beansareoverrated on June 26, 2014 8:10 PM writes...

My advice is to stop taking vacations. I have it on good authority that all worthwhile ideas in Pharma can be found in those tiny little "hot desk" drawers in Cambridge, MA. Thoughts and ideas from the rest of the commercial universe are not worthy of consideration.

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28. Grumpy Old Chemist on June 26, 2014 8:51 PM writes...

Yes, Conferences or seminars spur many ideas for me also. They usually come when I start to lose interest in the speaker, but am still in the "chemistry zone".

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29. Anonymous on June 26, 2014 11:23 PM writes...

I have ideas at random times, can't really draw any place or time that tends to hold more than its share to be honest, but then again I haven't been keeping track or count.

One of my best ideas I had in the form of a dream in which I was talking about the problem with my PI. I said what my plan was (formulated during waking hours), and he gave insight and advice ("Well, what about this?"... "That would have this problem. How about..." etc.)

All of my dream PI's insights and advice ended up being really good.

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30. Syn on June 26, 2014 11:34 PM writes...

A very interesting post. I think part of the reason why the above "distractions" stimulate creative juices is because these somehow allow one to focus on the "big picture", place the current happenings in perspective and approach the problem from a fresh angle. For my part, I have often found that being in motion (walking, traveling in a car or flight) gives me insights for which I otherwise would struggle for weeks.

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31. Anonymous on June 27, 2014 12:10 AM writes...

@30: How do you know when you're "in motion" given lack of absolute space (Newton) and time (Einstein)?

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32. Morten G on June 27, 2014 4:19 AM writes...

Shower, vacation, conventions, conferences.
I don't have a guess as to why showers why but I think the rest has something to do with the brain processing "new". A bunch of new impressions to make sense of and integrate into what's already in the brain / mind. So the new ideas about work sort of shake out while a bunch of other new things are running through your mind.

Million dollar idea: Shower dictaphones! Oh, it's been done. A scuba slate sounds like the most promising solution:

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33. Rob on June 27, 2014 5:01 AM writes...

This happens to me all the time. I think it is because a good conference wakes you up, rekindles your enthusiasm, and gets you thinking around the fringes of your own work. Then when you get back to the lab/office you are doubly busy because there is a bunch of stuff you didnt do well you were away, plus a bunch of new jobs your have just created for yourself.

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34. Old timer on June 27, 2014 5:21 AM writes...

In the 70's and 80's I got in the habit of going to the library right after lunch to peruse the journals that arrived that day. That is when ideas came to me with regularity. Now with eJournals...........

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35. Andrew Molitor on June 27, 2014 5:31 AM writes...

Inspiration and creativity are surprisingly manageable processes. Key is taking a break of a fairly specific kind. Spacing out, but after thinking hard on a problem for a while until stymied, but spacing out in a pretty specific way, activates some identifiable brain activity.

This activity seems to be associated with inspiration.

Hence, showers and the like.

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36. Greg on June 27, 2014 7:11 AM writes...

I often get my best ideas whilst driving home after a days work in the lab. I quite regularly record voice memos on my phone to look at later. I think it's well known that the subconscious brain can often think/process ideas better during downtime.

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37. Syn on June 27, 2014 9:39 AM writes...

@ 31: Relative space and time are intellectual constructs which require a bit of imagination to appreciate. The mind somehow senses the more "mundane" motions by considering itself the absolute point of reference.

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38. bluefoot on June 27, 2014 9:39 AM writes...

Conferences definitely. I end up with notes scribbled in the margins of my notebook or conference program. Back when I had an office (I *hate* the whole open workplan thing), I had a small dartboard. Throwing darts for even 5 minutes would lead to solutions to problems or new ideas. The dartboard worked for others too.

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39. a. nonymaus on June 27, 2014 10:50 AM writes...

Clearly, the right approach is to combinatorially increase productivity. I'd suggest biking from a conference to a mini-vacation where you take a dump in the shower. It's as likely to work as the contents of most combinatorial libraries.

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40. tebi on June 27, 2014 11:45 AM writes...

Happens all the time. While at work, thinking of problemas at home, while at home thinking of problems at work. What works best for me to deal with work problems is running a good 10 or 12 kms. I don't know if it is the oxigen flowing to the brain or the lack of distractions, it works as a great inspirator.

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41. Yancey Ward on June 27, 2014 1:02 PM writes...

I always had a clearer head about how to proceed when I was not in the lab staring things in the face. This was not only true in synthetic chemistry, but in all aspects of my life. I need a certain distance from a problem to be able to solve it most efficiently. I have read that the lateral thinking that is necessary to solve difficult problems requires the mind to be in a bit of a relaxed, unfocused state.

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42. newnickname on June 27, 2014 1:41 PM writes...

"The Third Place": In psych, there is a concept called the third place which is a place outside the norms of home and work where you can be free to think freely and so on. Commenters above have mentioned places that might be suitable "third places" and there are probably others.

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43. Anonymous on June 27, 2014 5:43 PM writes...

easy to get bored at chem conferences these days: synthesis of some big compound nobody really cares about--but in 9 steps!!

or, table of e.e.s and some crazy hypothesis about enantiodifferentiating steps...

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44. LR on June 27, 2014 8:54 PM writes...

I was once stuck in traffic on the Walt Whitman bridge in Philadelphia, with nothing to when suddenly the answer to a weeks-long quality problem at work came to me. I had spent hours at my desk looking over test results, etc, etc, with no answers in sight. But when I was not actively doing anything as I sat behind the wheel, the answer became crystal clear. And it turned out to be the right.

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45. Scarodactyl on June 28, 2014 12:48 AM writes...

"Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire." -Walt Whitman

Yes, you are certain Walt Whitman said that. One hundred percent positive.

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46. ed on June 28, 2014 1:15 AM writes...

i lost my job at a CRO for taking (too) many mini-breaks during the day to mull problems over away from the busybusybusy of lab work.......some mid-level director evidently noticed and thought that i must be a lazy POS, whilst I obviously i failed to realise i was not employed as a "designer" chemist who was allowed to take time to mull over and solve problems.

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47. oldnuke on June 28, 2014 7:00 PM writes...

Probably due to the low signal-to-noise ratio of most meetings! Eventually the brain tires of filtering all of the speakers' noise and wanders off to more profitable ventures.

If I have to sit through one more management-philosophy-of-the-week seminar, I think that I will probably vomit (hopefully on the speaker).

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48. bob on June 29, 2014 6:19 PM writes...

I just get stoned as hell... the ideas flow like sweet maple syrup on an ant... like in Jurassic park.

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49. Anonymous BMS Researcher on June 30, 2014 7:13 AM writes...

@Old timer: I also miss the daily trip to the New Journals shelf at the library! Keyword search and electronic table of contents are faster ways to find that for which I am looking at the moment, but less effective than skimming a physical journal for seeing stuff that is interesting but for which I might never do a specific search.

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50. newnickname on June 30, 2014 8:15 AM writes...

In grad school, I worked for a Big Guy who used to come in early and park next to the chem building. I could see him from my windows and he would often sit there for a long time, sometimes reading, sometimes thinking ... or maybe doing nothing (not likely). I had a job elsewhere where I was able to use my parked car as a Third Place and it was really productive, for me. I recall some satisfying insights while stewing in there on hot summer days and I did some excellent prelim writing (drafting) of proposals there.

But then there are the micromanagers (as mentioned above, eg @46) who need to see a body in its
"proper" place regardless of the state of the mind in that body.

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51. pharmacologyrules on June 30, 2014 8:46 AM writes...

Perhaps while at meetings, you spend more time discussing papers/presentations while at the bar? Beer can certainly change the thought processes.

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52. Wizz on July 1, 2014 1:29 AM writes...

I dread my supervisor taking a long haul flight - I still haven't finished the last lot of hair-brained ideas!

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53. Kaleberg on July 1, 2014 11:13 PM writes...

I often figure out how to get past roadblocks in my work while I am sleeping. I usually have the solution presented visually and symbolically in the dream, often laden with irrelevant symbolism. For example, it might be an infinitely detailed television image hypnotically crippling me or a set of rotating nested boxes forming a sentient intelligence, but I'll usually recognize what is going on. Sometimes I'll even scoff at it and the shallow symbolic overlay. Now and then I'll even have a sequel dream where I work out the fix and get to see it in action. To my amazement, I'll usually wake up and remember the dream fuzzily, but the solution precisely.

When I need to move a project in a new direction or come up with something new, however, I usually have to be awake, though it helps to be thinking about something else for a few days. There is nothing like taking a walk, doing a little shopping, reading a novel or the like to get the ideas flowing.

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