How to Coax an Aha!

Nine ways to lay the groundwork for a breakthrough

By Bruce Grierson, published on March 9, 2015 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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To trigger an insight, the best strategy may be to try generating a 
preparatory state of mind. The idea is to lower your resistance to breakthrough perspective shifts, which often just means easing your grip on the wheel—concentrating on not concentrating, if you like. Here are nine approaches to laying the groundwork for an aha moment and helping it emerge.

Power down 

The consensual favorite, meditation, is “the best approach we know of” for readying the mind to receive leaps of insight wisdom, says Roland Griffiths, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s not easy, and it can be really frustrating initially because the mind mutinies. But this is a ‘technology’ that’s been worked out for thousands of years.” Experienced meditators learn to power down the frontal cortex—the mind’s editor—in order to toggle to the non-deliberate thinking mode, the gateway to novel solutions. 

Break a sweat

Go exercise for at least half an hour—and in a form that doesn’t require in-the-moment concentration (running, for instance, rather than squash). The British cryptographer Alan Turing was an accomplished marathoner who reported having major intellectual breakthroughs during his runs, which ultimately helped him crack German military codes in World War II. Some of the most creative and prolific novelists in modern times, from Don DeLillo to Haruki Murakami to Joyce Carol Oates, are runners as well, marinating their brains in endocannabinoids in the off-hours. The vaunted “runner’s high” that many experience after around 35 minutes produces both focus and detachment, and thus may be a uniquely reliable insight-producing state.

Hit the road

Certain forms of travel are actually set up to encourage mindshifts. “Transformational festivals” like Burning Man, for example, are a budding enterprise whose main purpose is to kindle a kind of awakening. Travel, more generally, “disorients us and thus breaks us out of any mental rut we may have been stuck in,” says Eric Weiner, whose forthcoming book, The Geography of Genius, explores the intersection of travel and creative leaps. When we travel, we put ourselves in a position of receptivity to novelty: new ideas, new rituals, new perspectives. Thus do we make new associations, rewire our noodles, and effectively become different people. 

Read, look, listen

Listeners of the National Public Radio show Studio 360’s ongoing segment, “The Aha Moment,” have shared hundreds of stories over the years, resulting in one of the best anecdotal archives of lives changed on a dime by art. A nurse closes a Dorothy Gilman novel about an 80-year-old spy and decides to seize her own childhood dream of becoming a doctor. A young science student chances on a piece of modern sculpture that triggers a major breakthrough in cell biology. Sometimes it’s the contact with a previously unconsidered possibility. More often it’s the emotional payload of great art that awakens something dormant in the brain

Chew on a koan

A koan is a riddle that “can’t be solved by the intellectual, logical sequence of thinking,” says James Austin, a neurologist and practicing Zen Buddhist. “Instead, it can be approached really only through insight—that is, a sudden breakthrough of the intuitive mind” after you’ve “arrived at a certain state of calm clarity.” This can take years. Koans are the world’s slowest-moving epiphany machines. They are “an exercise in not knowing, and not coming to a premature intellectual understanding of a topic,” as Austin puts it. 

Sustain the “slow hunch”

If you can teach yourself to recognize the hazy sense of, Wait a minute, there’s something here, you’d then know it’s time to switch off active information-gathering. Slowing down those fugitive hunches might be a refinable skill, posits Bodong Chen, an associate professor in learning analytics at the University of Minnesota. The goal is to let it “linger in the shadows of the mind…assembling new connections and gaining strength,” until it is eventually transformed into a Eureka moment.

Pick up a pencil

One way to sustain a slow hunch, Chen says, is just to write everything down. This is what Darwin did, and reading his notebooks today, we can see the evolution of his thinking as hunches were eventually promoted to working hypotheses. “Darwin was constantly rereading his notes, discovering new implications,” Chen says. “His ideas emerge as a kind of duet between the present-tense thinking brain and all those past observations recorded on paper.”

Practice taking action

Over the course of hundreds of interviews conducted for her book, Epiphany: True Stories of Sudden Insight, Elise Ballard discovered that everyone has hunches, but they rarely become full-blown epiphanies because one of a few things happens: Noise drowns out the signals, we don’t take meaning from them, or we fail to act on them. Ballard concluded that each part of the process is a developable skill: We can listen better, trust ourselves, and take action even if we can’t yet see the whole picture. We all have little insights, she says. The difference is that some of us treat them as messages, almost as marching orders.