Hot Thought

Psychology meets philosophy: knowledge, reality, morality, meaning

The Joy of Thought

Why discovery and creativity feel good

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.

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The view of creativity in "The Aha Experience" is encapsulated in the following theses:
1. Creativity results from novel combinations of representations.
2. In humans, mental representations are patterns of neural activity.
3. Neural representations are multimodal, encompassing information that can be visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, kinesthetic, and emotional, as well as verbal.
4. Neural representations are combined by convolution, a kind of twisting together of existing representations.
5. The causes of creative activity reside not just in psychological and neural mechanisms, but also in social and molecular mechanisms.

As is common in cognitive science, we spell out the relevant psychological and neural mechanisms using computer models. Our paper describes computer simulations of how two representations, each consisting of a pattern of firing in a neural population, can be combined into a new representation that binds together the original ones. We also show how this conceptual result can then be combined with neural firings that represent emotional reactions that in turn combine both bodily reactions and cognitive appraisals. The result is a rough approximation to the Aha! or Eureka! experience that delights scientists and other creators.

Our model of the Aha! experience was itself the result of combining two sets of ideas, one concerning how concepts can be neural processes, and the other concerning how emotions can also be neural processes. To simplify: representation combination + emotion = Eureka. Producing and writing up the model was a lot of work, fueled by the joy of developing new ideas about what makes thought joyful.

 

Paul Thagard is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo and author of The Brain and the Meaning of Life.

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