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"Aha" Moments Caught on Tape

How we arrive at eureka! moments.

Research has caught on "tape" the moment of insight that comes to us in a daydreaming state of mind. These are the proverbial "aha," "eureka!" or "light bulb" moments of discovery that come to us whether it's something simple like suddenly remembering the name of an old friend or some truly innovative insight like the key to a new computer program. In these moments of insight, "EEG recordings revealed a distinctive flash of gamma waves emanating from the brain's right hemisphere . . . one-third of a second before a volunteer experienced their conscious moment of insight," writes Robert Lee Hotz in an article on the creative problem-solving attributes of daydreaming in the Wall Street Journal.

What's more, the moment of insight was associated with a change in alpha brain waves in the visual cortex, which also jibes with what researchers know about daydreaming. While daydreaming, the brain enters an alpha wave state, a more relaxed state of mind. This calm and slightly detached state, which is the hallmark of daydreaming, helps to "quiet the noise" so that we can experience the answer or connection.

What's weird is that the moment of insight seems to happen before we're even consciously aware of it, according to the study. That's why the answer seems to come out of nowhere. We say things like an idea struck us "like lightning" or came "from out of the blue," when in reality, while daydreaming, we're accessing stores of knowledge, memory, and experience unavailable to us when locked in the tunnel vision of focus. And thus--the supreme value of the daydreaming state of mind. It allows us to make connections that our more rational mind can't see.

We owe a great debt to psychologists who started the research on daydreaming but it appears that neuroscientists are taking matters to the next level when it comes to understanding the mechanics of daydreaming. Though sometimes, I have to admit, I prefer the mystery of the lightning strike, the idea of the muse alighting on one's shoulder, or simply the sublime magic of the creative moment, which is all so much more romantic and inspiring than the clinical coldness of brain waves, EEGs, and fMRIs.

Whether you are a natural practitioner and admirer of the daydreaming mind or whether you need to be convinced by the cold hard hand of science, the end result is hopefully the same--a greater appreciation of the value of daydreaming and an increased ability to notice the moments of illumination that come to you in this state.

Copyright Amy Fries
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