Many scientists have described the great joy that comes from making a discovery. Such emotions provide a major part of the motivation that keeps creative people working hard in the face of adversity. A new model of the Aha! experience provides a neural explanation of the joy of thought.
I recently heard on CBC radio a well-known biologist say that she didn't know of any drug that could produce as much pleasure as making a research breakthrough. Similarly, the distinguished chemist Car Djerassi pronounced: "I'm absolutely convinced that the pleasure of a real scientific insight - it doesn't have to be a great discovery - is like an orgasm." In the same vein, the famous physicist Richard Feynman declared: "The prize is the pleasure of finding a thing out, the kick of the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work]-those are the real things, the others are unreal to me." What goes on in scientists' brains that produces this kick?
To help to answer this question, Terry Stewart and I have just published an article on creativity and emotion in the journal Cognitive Science: "The Aha! Experience: Creativity Through Emergent Binding in Neural Networks." We describe how many kinds of creativity are the result of novel combinations of concepts that generate emotional responses. Such combinations occur in many fields, including scientific discovery, technological invention, artistic imagination, and social innovation. For example, Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection came about when he put together two concepts: selection, with which he was familiar from animal breeding, and nature, which he realized could contribution to selection as the result of competition to survive and reproduce. In technology, the telephone was invented when Alexander Graham Bell figured out how to combine ideas about how the ear works with electronic mechanisms derived from the telegraph. Such combinations can be very exciting for creators, when they realize how the new conceptual creation can contribute to longstanding goals to understand nature or produce new devices.