Long ago, talking about scientific discovery, Pasteur said “chance favors the prepared mind.” In my case, I now realize, this generalization can be improved on. The underlying pattern can be described more precisely.
I’ve made several discoveries because two things came together, as Pasteur said, with one element a kind of chance and the other a kind of knowledge. The two elements were:
- I did something unusual.
- I knew something unusual.
Here are the discoveries and how they fit this pattern:
1. Breakfast. Discovery: Eating breakfast caused me to wake up too early more often. Did something unusual: I copied one of my students, who told me about his experiences during office hour. This eventually led me to vary my breakfast. Knew something unusual: I had detailed records of my sleep. The combination made it clear that breakfast was affecting my sleep.
2. Morning faces. Discovery: Seeing faces in the morning improves my mood the next day. Did something unusual: I watched a tape of Jay Leno soon after getting up. Knew something unusual: From teaching intro psych, I knew there was a strong connection between depression and bad sleep.
3. Standing and sleep. Discovery: Standing a lot reduces early awakening. Did something unusual: I arranged my life so that I stood a lot more than usual. Knew something unusual: I had detailed sleep records. They made the reduction in early awakening easy to see.
4. Sleep and health. Discovery: At the same time my sleep greatly improved, I stopped getting colds. Did something unusual: To improve my sleep I was standing a lot and getting a lot of morning light from a bank of lights on my treadmill. Knew something unusual: I had records of my colds going back ten years.
5. The Shangri-La Diet. Discovery: Drinking sugar water causes weight loss. Did something unusual: I went to Paris. Knew something unusual: I had developed a new theory of weight control.
6. Flaxseed oil and the brain. Discovery: Flaxseed oil improves my mental function. Did something unusual: One evening I took 6-8 flaxseed oil capsules. Knew something unusual: I had been putting on my shoes standing up for more than a year and knew how difficult it usually was. The morning after I took the flaxseed oil capsules it was a lot easier.
7. Standing on one foot and sleep. Discovery: Standing on one foot improves my sleep. Did something unusual: In order to stretch my quadriceps, I stood on one foot several times one day. Knew something unusual: I knew that if I stood a lot my sleep improved (Discovery 3).
The unusual actions ranged from things as common as foreign travel (Paris) and stretching to the extremely rare (watch a tape of Jay Leno soon after waking up). The unusual knowledge ranged from quirky and casual (knowing how hard it is to put on shoes standing up) to sets of numbers (sleep records) to generalizations based on numbers (what scientific papers are about) to the sort of stuff taught in science classes (a theory of weight control) to the sort of knowledge derived from teaching science classes (connecting depression and bad sleep). To call this stuff unusual knowledge is actually too broad because in every case it’s knowledge related to causality.
Only after Discovery 7 (more precisely, this morning) did I notice this pattern. Read the discussion section of this paper (which is about Discoveries 1-5) to see how badly I missed it earlier.