The "Aha! Moment"
Great ideas can sometimes be the result of what experimental psychologists call insight, a sudden realization. These ideas can change human culture, as when Archimedes yelled "Eureka" as he realized that an irregularly-shaped object displaces an amount of liquid equal to its volume, or when Isaac Newton watched an apple fall from a tree and thereby derived the theory of gravity. But sudden insights don't have to be earth shattering. They can be realizations about everyday things or about one's self.
My research collaborators and I have been studying the cognitive and neural basis of insight, popularly called the "Aha! Moment." Kounios and Beeman (2009) present a brief review of this work. Below are some highlights.
Smith and Kounios (1996) used a quantitative behavioral technique to show that insight really does yield problem solutions in a discrete, all-or-none, fashion -- a "flash of insight."
Jung-Beeman et al. (2004) had subjects solve simple verbal problems while having their brains scanned with fMRI or EEG and showed that the Aha! Moment corresponds to a sudden burst of high-frequency brain activity in the right anterior superior temporal gyrus (for a synopsis, click here). This brain response was immediately preceded by a burst of slower alpha-wave activity measured over posterior cortex, likely reflecting a transient blocking of incoming visual information. We hypothesized that this blocking of incoming visual information reduces interference, thereby facilitating the retrieval of the weakly activated solution to the problem. (See press release Aha! Cognitive Neuroscientists Reveal Creative Brain Processes (4/13/04).)
Kounios et al. (2006), again using EEG and fMRI, showed that brain activity during the two seconds immediately preceding the presentation of a problem predicted whether the upcoming problem would be solved with or without a flash of insight. This suggests that cognitive problem solving strategies are at least partly determined by a form of transient preparatory activity. This may be what Louis Pasteur had in mind when he famously said "Chance favors only the prepared mind." [See press release Aha! Favors the Prepared Mind (4/5/06).]
In our latest paper (Kounios et al., 2008), we examined resting-state EEG activity before subjects solved a series of anagrams or even knew that they were about to solve a series of anagrams. We found that when subjects don't even have a task to perform, their ongoing brain activity predicts whether they will tend to solve problems by sudden insight, or whether they will tend to solve them using a methodical, analytic, strategy. This indicates that subjects' problem solving strategies are influenced by their current brain states. This also raises the possibility that these brain-state differences are stable indicators of "cognitive style." [See press release Brain Activity Differs for Creative and Noncreative Thinkers (10/28/07).]
Last updated 4/24/08.