While this may not be scientifically proven, tales of high-altitude “aha” moments are numerous. In 1979, somewhere in the sky between Hartford, Connecticut and Austin, Texas, American writer Daniel Okrent fantasized about a game in which players could assemble Major League Baseball dream teams and compete against each other using real-life stats. Nearly 60 million people now play fantasy sports across North America. The idea for Earth Day also came down from on high after United States senator Gaylord Nelson did some inflight reading about teach-ins on a 1969 return trip from California’s oil-wrecked coast.
The most non-revelatory explanation for airborne eurekas is that airplanes double as isolation chambers. “A potential factor in people’s productivity on airplanes is the relative absence of distractions,” says neuroscientist Alan Jasanoff. Once you’ve entered the liminal limbo of the air world, workaday interruptions and inbox influxes are able to hang temporarily in the balance. This may be why many writers, including J.K. Rowling and Mindy Kaling, can conjure strokes of genius while airborne. The author Peter Shankman even booked a round trip to Tokyo for the sole purpose of writing Zombie Loyalists on the fly.
But as Jasanoff notes in The Biological Mind, environments can also play a role in shaping how people think. “There’s a lot of evidence that creative thinking benefits from novel stimuli,” he says. “I can certainly imagine that the unusual stimulus passengers get from looking out the window and seeing clouds from above could make a difference.” After all, it’s not called blue-sky thinking for nothing.
5 blue-sky ideas
Jeopardy! On a flight from Michigan to New York in 1963, Julann Griffin (then the wife of Merv Griffin) masterminded a workaround to traditional trivia games: A game that gives contestants answers instead of questions. What is Jeopardy!?
Disney Dollars A light bulb switched on for Jack Lindquist, former president of Disneyland, while reading global financial news en route to California. With a larger combined population than most small countries, why shouldn’t Disney theme parks have their own currency, too?
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Gloomy in the sky with the band, Paul McCartney was brooding over the mop-top Beatles’ need for a rebrand when he came up with the idea to adopt alter egos. One meal service with S- and P-labelled salt and pepper packets later and Sgt. Pepper’s band was formed.
Hermès' Birkin Bag Hermès CEO and designer Jean-Louis Dumas sketched his first draft of the iconic Birkin handbag on the back of an airsickness sack after seeing Jane Birkin spill the contents of her straw tote – baby bottles and all – one seat over.
The Birthday Party Project Something sparked for Paige Chenault on a flight in 2008 when she realized homeless children likely aren’t blowing candles out on their birthdays. A few years later, she launched a non-profit to throw monthly fêtes at homeless and transitional shelters. More than 50,000 candles have lit up since.