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Eureka! Deconstructing the Brain Mechanics of "Aha!" Moments

The cerebellum may be a central player in triggering "aha!" moments.

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

A fascinating new study has identified that whenever you search for creative solutions to a problem, if you work towards finding a solution—and then trust your insights—you're more likely to have an Aha! moment than if you strictly rely on analytic thinking.

Participants in this study who gave their ideas time to incubate, and waited until they had an intuitive flash of insight scored better on a wide range of tests. In fact, rushing to find the correct answer by overthinking the problem often backfired. This research unearths some valuable new clues that help to deconstruct the brain mechanics of the “Eureka! I’ve found it” phenomenon.

The March 2016 study, "Insightful Solutions Are Correct More Often Than Analytic Solutions," was published in the journal Thinking & Reasoning. The research team involved in this study included: Carola Salvi and Mark Beeman of Northwestern University; Edward Bowden of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside; Emanuela Bricolo of Milano-Bicocca University in Italy; and John Kounios of Drexel University.

For this study, the researchers conducted four experiments in order to identify how participants' problem solving strategies influenced their solution accuracies across different types of problems. One problem dealt with linguistics, one was visual, and two were a mixture of visual-linguistic.

In my mind, the design of this study is genius because it inadvertently tests various brain regions and brain hemispheres without being neuroscience based. Although the researchers don’t mention brain science in this study, one could make an educated guess that the linguistic, visual, and visual-linguistic puzzles involve sub-regions of both brain hemispheres within the cerebrum (Latin for "brain") in various ways.

Allowing Creative Solutions to Incubate and Percolate Leads to Aha! Moments

In each of the four experiments, participants self-judged if a solution was more of an intuitive “insight” or strictly analytical. On average, the insightful solutions were more accurate than analytic solutions. Interestingly, people who tended to have more insights didn’t rush to find immediate solutions and were more likely to miss a deadline.

However, if given time to let their potential answer incubate or gestate without rushing the solution, they would often have an Aha! moment. Conversely, those who responded based on analytic thought (described as being an idea that is worked out consciously and deliberately) were more likely to provide an answer by the deadline, but these last-minute answers were often wrong.

Carola Salvi, Ph.D., of Northwestern University, was lead author on the paper. In a press release, Salvi describes the background this study,

"The history of great discoveries is full of successful insight episodes, fostering a common belief that when people have an insightful thought, they are likely to be correct. However, this belief has never been tested and may be a fallacy based on the tendency to report only positive cases and neglect insights that did not work.

Our study tests the hypothesis that the confidence people often have about their insights is justified. Because insight solutions are produced below the threshold of consciousness, it is not possible to monitor and adjust processing before the solution enters awareness.”

In the same press release, John Kounios, Ph.D., professor in Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences added,

"Conscious, analytic thinking can sometimes be rushed or sloppy, leading to mistakes while solving a problem. However, if insight is unconscious and automatic—it can't be rushed.

When the process runs to completion in its own time and all the dots are connected unconsciously, the solution pops into awareness as an Aha! moment. This means that when a really creative, breakthrough idea is needed, it's often best to wait for the insight rather than settling for an idea that resulted from analytical thinking."

The way that the researchers describe the “unconscious” mind playing a role in Aha! moments reminds me of a famous quotation by Arthur Koestler who once described the experience of finding the conscious truth by connecting to the intuitive subconscious,

“The moment of truth, the sudden emergence of a new insight, is an act of intuition. Such intuitions give the appearance of miraculous flushes, or short-circuits of reasoning. In fact they may be likened to an immersed chain, of which only the beginning and the end are visible above the surface consciousness. The diver vanishes at one end of the chain and comes up at the other end, guided by invisible links.”

In one of the experiments, the number of incorrect responses related to analytic thinking recorded in the last five seconds was more than double the number of incorrect responses recorded as insights. In an email correspondence, Carola Salvi pointed out that it's important to distinguish insights from gut instincts. Salvi said,

"Insight problem solving occurs when, after working on a problem for awhile and maybe feeling stuck, a solution unexpectedly emerges into consciousness in an ‘Aha!’ moment. This happens because our mind restructures, reframes the initial representation of a problem and that allows us to see it under a new light and solve it."

Aha! Moments Require “Unclamping” Your Prefrontal Cortex

I've spent the past decade trying to solve the riddle of how intelligence and intuition coalesce inside the brain. When I published The Athlete’s Way (St. Martin’s Press) in 2007, I presented a radical new theory that put the conscious mind in the cerebrum and the unconscious mind in the cerebellum (Latin for "little brain"). I’ve been on a mission to figure out what role the cerebellum plays in cognitive and creative processes for a long time.

Christopher Bergland/St. Martin's Press
This chart illustrates hypothetical attributes of the cerebellum and cerebrum based on the "Bergland Split-Brain Model." on p. 81 of The Athlete's Way.. (circa 2005)
Source: Christopher Bergland/St. Martin's Press

Based on my hypothetical framework, the moment I read this new study on Aha! moments it jumped out at me as representing the need for the frontal cortex to “unclamp” or daydream in order to allow intuitive thoughts or "insights" to bubble up into consciousness where they can be reinterpreted intellectually.

In 1911, William James gave prophetic advice on how to facilitate Eureka! moments that has greatly influenced my thinking on this topic. In On Vital Reserves: The Energies of Men. The Gospel of Relaxation, James writes,

"When you are making your general [creative] resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, keep them out of the details. When once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome. Unclamp, in a word, your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good.”

James’ words echo and corroborate the findings of this latest study on insightful solutions by Salvi et al. Based on extensive empirical research and my life experience, when I think about the importance of unclamping the prefrontal cortex—which is the seat of analytic and cerebral thinking—it seems to me that aerobic exercise facilitates the process by disengaging neurons in the frontal lobes while engaging the cerebellum.

For example, Albert Einstein said famously of E=mc2, "I thought of it while riding my bicycle." Ralph Waldo Emerson once said of his neighbor, Henry David Thoreau, “The length of his walk uniformly made the length of his writing. If shut up in the house, he did not write at all."

I'm fascinated by the mysterious connection between the cerebellum, physical activity, creativity, and Eureka! moments. A few years ago, I really began to investigate the role that the cerebellum might play in the creative process. Therefore, I was very excited in May of 2015, when researchers at Stanford University published a study which identified that the cerebellum, may, in fact, be the seat of creativity.

In a press release, the Stanford study’s lead author, Manish Saggar, Ph.D., summed up the findings of how analytic thinking impacted Aha! moments by saying, “The more you think about it, the more you mess it up.” This is exactly what tennis legend Arthur Ashe would describe as “paralysis by analysis.”

What Are the Neurobiological Origins of Imagination?

About five years ago, I was walking down Commercial Street in Provincetown, Massachusetts when I bumped into a friend of mine named Maria, who is a poet. I was walking home from the gym, and she was on her way to the gym.

As Maria and I were talking, she asked, “What are you working on now?” I told her I was doing research for a book called Origins of Imagination: Exploring the Neuroscience of the Creative Process, and that my idea for this book was inspired by looking at the daily routines of writers such as Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates, William James, Henry David Thoreau, etc. who all seemed to have creative breakthroughs while they were walking, jogging, or doing some type of aerobic activity.

At the time, I had a hunch that the cerebellum was involved in this process, but hadn’t been able to analytically expand on the split-brain model of The Athlete’s Way. As we were standing there, Maria started moving her arms and legs back and forth as if she was on an elliptical machine . . . Then she said casually, “I don’t know what it is, but whenever I'm on the elliptical trainer, poetry just starts to pour out of me.” Right then and there, I had an Aha! moment and felt like I'd been struck by a bolt of lightning.

Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland
This rudimentary map of the brain illustrates how creative problem-solving might benefit by bridging the gaps and optimizing the functional connectivity between all four brain hemispheres. (circa 2009).
Source: Illustration and photo by Christopher Bergland

As I watched Maria moving her arms and legs back and forth to mime the motion of the elliptical, I said, “Yes! That’s it!!" Suddenly, in a flash I realized that for years I'd been so fixated on the up brain-down brain model that I'd overlooked the most important aspects of functional connectivity and synchronization between specific regions within each of the four brain hemispheres.

I now believe that the key to creativity isn't just left brain-right brain, or up brain-down brain—it's much more like a big "Super 8" or möbius strip that creates a dynamic feedback loop between all four brain hemispheres. The left hemisphere of the cerebrum controls the right side of the body; the left hemisphere of the cerebellum controls the left side of the body, and vice versa. Jeremy Schmahmann has a theory that the cerebellum might fine-tune thoughts and ideas much the same way it fine-tunes muscle movements. I think he's onto something.

After my chat with Maria, I rushed home and drew this rudimentary sketch to illustrate how the kernel of an idea can germinate in one part of your mind, but as it gets swept through the “Super 8” it becomes like a Swiffer that collects bits of insight from every nook and cranny of each hemisphere and sub-region as it sweeps the entire brain.

For example, sometimes an idea can start as a visual flash in the right hemisphere of the cerebrum, sometimes it might be a phrase that originates in the left. As an educated guess, the engagement of the cerebellum coordinates things and makes the creative solution come together.

Sedentarism and Overthinking Are a Double Whammy That Stifles the Creative Process

Sitting still in a chair all day and cramming your cerebrum full of explicit, crystallized facts in order to do well on a standardized test causes the cerebellum to atrophy. This is why it's imperative that educators and policymakers continue to fund athletic programs and recess in public schools. If children don't have access to daily physicality and active learning, the scaffolding is never laid down to form optimal neural networks between all four brain hemispheres in ways that lead to creative breakthroughs and Aha! moments.

To read more on this topic, check out my previous Psychology Today blog posts:

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