An hour into Men in Black III, agent J, frustrated after losing yet another lead into his case, turns to his partner K who suggests that they have some pie. Resigned, J follows K to a diner in which they have pie. Thus, begins the famous “Pie Scene”.
J is frustrated that they’re having pie while a “world class serial killer [is] out there.” Eventually, he calms down and they begin talking about things unrelated to the case and something “clicks” in J’s mind – he has had an epiphany. He suddenly knows what he needs to do.
The Eureka moment
Named for Archimedes’s famous expression “Eureka!” after finding a solution to the golden crown problem – the moment describes an individual achieving an insight, “a sudden realization of a problem’s solution” (Goldstein 327-328). This article is not about finding such solutions or insights – it is about the lead up to that moment of inspiration. It’s about why, in the midst of trying to solve a complex problem, we find ourselves in the search for the figurative (or at times literal) pie. Or a bath – or a Barthes? Is the search for pie (or a bath, or a Barthes) but another iteration of procrastination? Or is there something to our distractions?
My friends and I were at a conference, and as it happens in conferences (as it happens in many seminars or lecture where the mind is found a-leaping about double-dutch-ing ideas) someone was talking about a “shadow thesis” they were working on – an alternate idea at the back of their minds which takes over time to time, from the project they should be working on. While we mentally berate ourselves for being distracted or for procrastinating, I remembered thinking that maybe, we are not actually procrastinating. Possibly, diving whole-heartedly into our shadow thesis is a necessary step in the journey of our actual thesis. Just as K needed to get pie. Just as Archimedes needed a bath – we need a moment of looking away for the thing to take shape in our mind’s eye.
Ideas in the shower
Why do we get so many competing ideas at times when we are not thinking about them, such as, while in the shower? There are many reasons for our minds to take diversions and enjoy the scenic route to problem solving. One such theory suggests that distracted situations are perfect for idea-generation because we are in a “relaxed” mental space. We could also argue that distractions leave us vulnerable and unable to defend our ideas, prompting our minds to go into overdrive with creative ways to protect ourselves. For the purpose of this essay, this second theory too is a pie that takes me away from the “relaxed mental space” theory.
Do we move away from the actual thesis to work on a shadow thesis simply because we are able to finish the latter? Psychologically, we could be trying to reassert control over our mental space as the completion of a smaller task grants us with a sense of instant gratification (see a more detailed analysis of this in Why Procrastinators Procrastinate by Tim Urban). The bath and the pie offer immediate resolutions to a state of mind that needs an energy-boosting granola bar.
However, we must note that in Men in Black III K asks J to get some pie, purposefully. He is fully aware that, “if you had a problem you can’t solve, it helps to get it out of your head [with pie]”. Similarly, in our hypothetical writer’s block, it would help to schedule diversions or be aware of the effect such breaks have on me as a part of my thinking process. The periodic movement to the shadow thesis offers an escape from the clutches of deadlines and information overload. It also provides a new perspective on the project that needs your immediate attention. Focusing on the shadow thesis gets the actual thesis “out of your head” so that your head can get around, in a roundabout way, to solve the actual thesis.
Shadow becomes reality
Sometimes, solving the shadow thesis could help solve the actual thesis. In Archimedes’ famous anecdote, the displacement of the bath water led to one of the most important, and popular, scientific discoveries. Or it could be an analogous discovery – like the laser-tumour and general-fortress problems that are used as examples for analogical problem solving – the observed similarities between two problems, may lead to unexpected solutions from one situation to the other. Working on multiple problems lead to transfers of learning, reapplication of solutions and recombination of principles. So where does that leave our pie?
Eating pie did not provide a solution for K and J. It was a chance encounter that occurred while eating pie. While they were distracted from the problem at hand, they were also talking about other things, including the New York Mets. Subsequently, J’s explanation about the “Miracle Mets” winning the season connected with something J heard earlier leading to an epiphany. So, it could be a mere coincidence – where the universe provides answers if you just relax.
When we are stymied by a problem or a threat, or minds narrow and are so hyper-focused on trying to solve the problem that it shuts down all other potentially unrelated distractions – and such focus might be useful in situations where there’s only one straightforward solution to a problem, like a math equation. But not all problems are straightforward – many problems require more creative solutions. In situations that require creative problem-solving, there’s a need to relax and eat pie. When our minds are relaxed or focused on other tasks, the pressure of solving the actual problem is reduced. This opens channels for other solutions to come through, increasing the chances of having thoughts “click” together.
To return to the question of solving the actual thesis, it is possible that our mind wanders into the shadow thesis in order to wonder about the actual thesis. By removing the focus we also remove tension and allow for more unrelated thoughts which increase the incidence of and space for “clicking”. The shadow thesis is pie – it is the space, for the sweet and incomplete, thoughts, and fancies to get thrown in when we do not have the time to engage with them.
Perhaps it is not only natural but highly recommended to have a slice of pie when we are in a tight spot. Pie might just solve your problems, and even if it doesn’t – you still have had some pie.
Nurul Wahidah graduated with an MA in Creative Writing and a BA in Psychology from NTU Singapore. Besides pie, she is interested in poetry and human behavior.