The Aha! Moment: The Science Behind Creative Insight


For most of us, it usually occurs at the most inopportune times; never when we’re searching for it. To Archimedes, it happened in the bathtub. Newton experienced it while wandering an apple orchard. Arthur Fry: church. Each encountered an epiphany, that powerful moment of spontaneous insight. Archimedes shouted Eureka! upon realizing how to calculate density and volume; to Newton came the law of universal gravity; to Arthur Fry, Post-it notes.

Behold the proverbial “aha!” moment — a key phenomenon that emerges in a range of situations, from offering a solution to a problem or a new interpretation of a situation to more simple feats such as understanding a joke or solving a crossword puzzle. There are many different representations we use colloquially to describe good ideas — sparks, flashes, light-bulb moments; inspirations and innovations; muses and visions. But what makes these moments so mystifying is that they usually materialize abruptly, without warning and seemingly out of thin air.

In today’s fast-paced industries, everyone is eager to foster these sparks of creativity, and it’s no wonder why: From these aha! moments come world-changing breakthroughs — from the discovery of penicillin and the invention of the microwave and safety glass to prescriptions for eyelash growth and the invention of Velcro and Post-its.

Laboratories and psychologists have attempted to study this phenomenon using behavioral methods for nearly a century, resulting merely in speculations as to where these ideas come from and how they form. Lately, though, with recent advancements and tools of cognitive neuroscience, researchers are able to explain the inner workings of the brain during moments of insight. By looking at images of the brain and recording brainwaves of individuals in experiments that generate insight, scientists have found that these sudden sparks are the result of a complex series of brain states. Findings also suggest that we require more neural processes operating at different time scales in these moments than we use when solving a problem analytically or methodically.

In a series of experiments, researchers Dr. Jon Kounios of Drexel University and Dr. Mark Beeman of Northwestern University used fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain-image scanning and EEG (electroencephalography) sensors to document the neural activity of volunteers as they worked to solve word problems.

Participants were presented with three words (e.g., crab, pine, sauce), and were instructed to think of a single word that forms a familiar two-word phrase with all three (e.g., apple can join with crab, pine, and sauce to form pineapple, crabapple, and applesauce). As soon as participants thought of a solution word, they pressed a button to indicate whether the answer had come to them suddenly (through insight), or if they used a methodical hypothesis testing approach — in other words, a trial-and-error approach.

In the volunteers that experienced insight, Kounios and Beeman found a distinctive spark of high gamma activity that would spike one-third of a second before volunteers consciously arrived at an answer. Additionally, the flash of gamma waves stemmed from the brain’s right hemisphere — an area involved in handling associations and assembling parts of a problem.

Gamma activity indicates a constellation of neurons binding together for the first time in the brain to create a new neural network pathway. This is the creation of a new idea. Immediately following that gamma spike, the new idea pops into our consciousness, which we identify as the aha! moment.

In addition, Kounios and Beeman noted a burst of slower, alpha-band activity over the right visual cortex — an area of the brain that controls our sight — occurring immediately prior to the burst of gamma waves. This unexpected finding suggests that the brain is quieting the neurons in that area to reduce the amount of distraction and visual interference taken in — similar to everyday circumstances, the way we close our eyes or look away when concentrating on a question — which then allows insight to pop into awareness.

According to a study by Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharya at Goldsmiths College and Dr. Bhavin Sheth at the University of Houston, published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, the brain already knows whether a problem will be solved analytically or through sudden insight, and what’s more, the brain knows this an astonishing eight seconds beforehand.

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