Thinking of the perfect comeback long past the right moment is an established drawback of the human condition. The term L’Spirit de l’escalier, a French phrase used by English speakers for this phenomenon, translates to staircase wit- because of how the perfect response to a taunt at the dining table only crosses one’s mind as he reaches the staircase to his apartment. The German term here also bears the same translation – Treppenwitz.
Why does this happen? Why is it that the thoughtful response, brimming with wit, only occurs to us well past its useful life? This is because of two modes of thinking that are fundamental to how our brains function – the focused and diffused mode. The focused mode is what we employ when we consciously and logically try to do a well-known activity. This mode of thinking is used when we are thinking hard of coming up with rejoinders at the dining table. The focused mode is alert and purposeful but rigid in its ways and sorely lacking in creativity. When our head hurts as we force ourselves to come up with creative ideas, the focused mode is in the driver’s seat.
This is where the diffused mode comes in. The diffused mode is random and fires neurons in spread out regions in the brain. But the diffused mode fosters creative thinking and ideation. It gives us brilliant insights when we are dreamily staring outside a bus window, or quite prominently, while showering. Using this mode of thinking, our brain solves problems in the background, connecting several dots as we perform routine activities.
Another real-life example I can think of is during tests. There are numerous instances where the correct answer to a question or the correct approach to a problem has occurred to me after I have handed in my paper. This is regardless of however long I bashed away at the problem, trying to solve it with a focused head. This happens because I did not give the diffused mode a chance to shine until I handed my paper in and relaxed at little.
Just like focusing on something, we must have language for diffusing on something. By training and harnessing our diffused mode is how we can have our creative side effectively partner our overly logical side, and come up with clever comebacks before it is too late!
Credits: I learnt about the focused and diffused mode of thinking in this excellent meta-learning course.