The Aha Moments – the science of achieving insights
New research into these “aha” moments tells us a lot about how to increase the likelihood of having these moments of brilliance. And while it seems unlikely that we can control when we have an insight, it’s now very clear that we can dramatically increase the likelihood that an insight will emerge.
Mark Beeman is one of the eminent neuroscientists studying the “aha” moment. As he said in an article in
the first NeuroLeadership Journal, “… variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving.” In short, insights tend to involve connections between small numbers of neurons.
When people have insights, Jonathon Schooler finds that they are “mind wandering,” which is a form of daydreaming. They are not focused externally on the problem. Mark Beeman finds an alpha effect in the visual and auditory cortex just before someone has an insight, meaning that people shut out external data to save their resources for noticing the insight. Therefore, insights are more likely when you can look inside yourself and not focus on the outside world and when you feel safe enough to reflect on deeper thoughts and not worry about what is going on around you for a moment.
There is a lot of research showing that being slightly happy, versus slightly anxious, helps people solve more problems and be more creative. Mark Beeman has determined the details of how this happens, showing that when people are happy they are more likely to notice a wider range of information
than when they are anxious and will be more “tunnel visioned.” So the third quality of the brain state required for insight is feeling open, curious, and generally interested in something.
This final piece of the puzzle is a bit confounding. Basically, if you want insights, you need to stop trying to solve a problem. This can be confusing because usually, insights happen because we become stuck at an impasse.
The impasse tends to involve a small set of solutions on which we have become fixed. And the more we work on the same wrong solution, the more we prime the brain for that solution and the harder it is to think of new ideas. It is much like changing traffic on a freeway—we have to stop the traffic going one way before it can go another. In the brain, wrong solutions push out correct ones. Psychologist
Stellan Ohlsson developed this idea into “inhibition theory,” which states that we need to inhibit the wrong solutions for the right ones to come to our attention. Also, effort tends to involve a lot of
electrical activity, and this activity can reduce the likelihood of noticing
Implications of the research
While you can’t force an insight to take place, you can put your brain into a state that significantly increases the chances of an insight occurring. It is what highly creative people do every day. It means not actively working on a problem, but instead, letting yourself happily mind wander, freely associating and relaxing into a quiet mental state. It means being okay with feeling as you do when you first wake up in the morning—relaxed and with diffuse, easy attention. Meditative, trans state of being also increases one’s ability to increase likelihood of having Aha moments and insights. Comment when do your best insights happen to you?