Scientists Find 'Aha!' Favors a Prepared Mind

Apr 10, 2006
Scientists Find 'Aha!' Favors a Prepared Mind

Why do "Aha!" moments sometimes come easily and sometimes not at all? A new study reveals that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve it with or without a sudden insight.

If you’ve experienced the highs and lows of creative thinking, you know that sometimes the creative well is dry, while at other times creativity is free flowing. It is during the latter times that problem solvers often experience so-called “Aha!” moments – those moments of clarity when the solution to a vexing problem falls into place with a sudden insight and one sees connections that previously eluded you.

But why do “Aha!” moments sometimes come easily and sometimes not at all? A new study reveals that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve it with or without a sudden insight, and these brain activity patterns are likely linked to distinct types of mental preparation.

John Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University, and their research team report their findings in a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science.

“Our previous work showed that the ‘Aha! Moment’ is associated with a specific and unique brain mechanism,” said Kounios. “The new study shows that this ‘Aha! Moment’ is the culmination of a process that begins even before one starts working on a specific problem. People can prepare to solve an upcoming problem with a flash of insight by adopting a particular frame of mind for doing so.”

The research suggests subjects can mentally prepare to have an “Aha!” solution even before a problem is presented. Specifically, as they prepare for problems that they solve with insight, their pattern of brain activity suggests that they are focusing attention inwardly, are ready to switch to new trains of thought, and perhaps are actively silencing irrelevant thoughts. This shows its possible to prepare mentally to solve problems with different thinking styles and that these different forms of preparation can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity. This study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to attain the optimal “frame of mind” to deal with particular types of problems.

This research team’s previous study revealed that just prior to an “Aha!” solution, after there has been work on solving a problem, the brain momentarily reduces visual inputs, with an effect similar to shutting of the eyes or looking away to facilitate the emergence into consciousness of the solution. The new study extends these findings by suggesting that mental preparation involving inward focus of attention promotes insight even prior to the presentation of a problem.

Participants in the new study were presented with a series of word puzzles. Each problem consisted of three words (for example, tank, hill, secret), and participants had to think of a single word that could form a compound or common phrase with each of the three words. Sometimes the problem was solved with a sudden flash of insight – the solution suddenly pops into consciousness and seems obviously correct. At other times, solving such problems is more methodically, and involves “trying out” possible solutions until on the correct one is found (in this case, top: tank top, hilltop, top secret).

In two parallel experiments, participants solved these problems while brain activity was monitored either with electroencephalograms (EEG), which provide precise timing information and approximate anatomical information, or with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which gives a more precise location of active brain areas, but with less precise timing. The researchers focused on neural activity that occurred during the period just before each problem was displayed.
The two brain imaging techniques yielded highly similar results and showed a different pattern of brain activity prior to problems that were subsequently solved with an “Aha!,” compared to the pattern of brain activity prior to problems solved more methodically.

Mental preparation that led to insight solutions was generally characterized by increased brain activity in temporal lobe areas associated with conceptual processing, and with frontal lobe areas associated with cognitive control or “top-down” processing. Jung-Beeman noted that “Problem solvers could use cognitive control to switch their train of thought when stuck on a problem, or possibly to suppress irrelevant thoughts, such as those related to the previous problem.” In contrast, preparation that led to more methodical solutions involved increased neural activity in the visual cortex at the back of the brain — suggesting that preparation for deliberate problem solving simply involved external focus of attention on the video monitor on which the problem would be displayed.

More than a century ago, Louis Pasteur said “Chance favors only the prepared mind.” By this, he meant that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen, but are the product of preparation. According to Kounios, “We have begun to understand how the brain prepares for creative insight. This will hopefully lead to techniques for facilitating it.”

Source: Drexel University

Explore further: Satire has a history of informing during times of crisis

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Stepping stones to NASA's human missions beyond

Jan 21, 2015

"That's one small step for (a) man; one giant leap for mankind." When Neil Armstrong took his first steps on the moon, many strides came before to achieve that moment in history. The same is true for a human ...

Do viruses make us smarter?

Jan 12, 2015

A new study from Lund University in Sweden indicates that inherited viruses that are millions of years old play an important role in building up the complex networks that characterise the human brain.

All together now – three evolutionary perks of singing

Dec 24, 2014

We're enjoying the one time of year when protests of "I can't sing!" are laid aside and we sing carols with others. For some this is a once-a-year special event; the rest of the year is left to the professionals ...

Economist outlines work on managing tasks and time

Dec 17, 2014

"When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight," said Samuel Johnson, "it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Most of us, spared such an imperative, carry on in a less-concentrated state, but it holds ...

Recommended for you

Satire has a history of informing during times of crisis

2 hours ago

Just as only the jester can tell the King the truth, satire performs a vital function in democratic society by using humor to broach taboo subjects, especially in times of crisis, according to a book by Penn State researchers.

Long-necked 'dragon' discovered in China

16 hours ago

University of Alberta paleontologists including PhD student Tetsuto Miyashita, former MSc student Lida Xing and professor Philip Currie have discovered a new species of a long-necked dinosaur from a skeleton ...

The largest known muntiacine found in China

16 hours ago

Dr. HOU Sukuan from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP), Chinese Academy of Sciences reported a new species of muntiacine Euprox in the journal of Zootaxa 3911 (1) recent ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.