Finding Your "Aha!" Moments
Eureka moments are sometimes spontaneous, but they can also be inspired.
Posted June 23, 2019
This past week, I led a memoir-writing workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, which I’ve been doing ever since I moved into the area. The workshop includes a lecture, discussion, and writing exercises to deepen the art of writing a memoir.
One of the first writing exercises I suggest is that participants make a list of five to ten "aha!" or transformative events in their lives. It’s amazing how some attendees are able to immediately identify those moments, while others need time to ponder what those moments would be. This doesn’t make some more poignant than others—it just means that different people tend to process their experiences differently.
Some of us find that the older we get, the easier it is to identify these moments, because, by the time we reach middle age, we’ve probably lived many lifetimes and have many stories to prove it.
"Aha!" or transformative moments may be defined as those that dramatically change or alter our physical, psychological, or mental well-being. Basically, the path of personal transformation is a process of becoming aware of, facing, and becoming responsible for our thoughts and feelings. Identifying and either talking or writing about our life-changing moments can lead to self-realization and further transformation.
Oftentimes, we become who we are as a result of these transformative events in our lives. In fact, these experiences have the potential to confirm our identity years after the experience. Humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow spoke about peak experiences or valuable life-changing revelations. He said, “Not only are they valuable intrinsically, but they're also so valuable that they make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence” (2011, p. 67).
Some of the most common pivotal or life-changing experiences are those that involve the death of loved ones, mental and physical illnesses, the forming or evolution of relationships, becoming a parent, sexual encounters, and conversations with others. But sometimes we might not know at the time that they are truly transformative. For example, one of my elderly students didn’t realize that receiving a nasty letter from her mother when she was in college would for her be a huge "aha!" moment that would forever change the trajectory of her life.
Writer and diarist Anaïs Nin made this observation: “It is the function of art to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see.” What the writer does is shake up the familiar scene while putting a whole new meaning to it. Everyone needs transformative moments to inspire them and move them along, whether they’re in the creative realm or not; but writers, in particular, bank on the thought of filling their notebooks with "aha!" moments that could possibly lead to publishable work.
According to the Harvard Business Review (2016), most people experience "aha!" moments not when they’re waiting for them, but usually when they’re doing something entirely unrelated. Often these moments occur when our minds are relatively quiet, and we're doing something else. Researchers claim that these moments are not always random, but can be brought on by certain behaviors. In fact, silence and solitude are critical to having these moments. Studies have shown that it’s important to take breather breaks, for example, during meetings and intense work situations.
How to Inspire "Aha!" Moments
- Zone out. Spend time in solitude. Focus on your inner thoughts, and ignore what’s going on around you. Just prior to an "aha!" moment, alpha brain waves are present, indicating that you’re able to eliminate external stimuli and focus on the internal. This is when the brain is mostly in idle mode. Special meditation sounds focusing on alpha brain waves can be helpful when studying.
- Allow your mind to wander. This could trigger insightful revelations.
- Don’t overschedule your day. Allow “downtime” so you have the opportunity to daydream.
- Foster happiness in your life, which will allow more space for insight and, thus, eureka moments.
- If you feel under the weather, do something to lift your spirits or mood, whether it’s reading a good book, going for a walk in nature, or meeting with a friend.
- Take a nap when you need one.
Summer Solstice might be the absolutely right time to consider accessing your "aha!" moments. The important thing is to allow time for solitude and to be mindful of the signals in your brain, as these can be important illuminating moments. While you’re at it, make sure to write them down... they might come in handy in the future!
Bourne, M. (2016). “The Aha! Moment.” Poets and Writers. September/October. pp. 126–127.
Maslow, A. (2011). Toward the Psychology of Being. New York, NY: Sublime Books.
Raab, D. (2017). Writing for Bliss. Ann Arbor, MI: Loving Healing Press.
Rock, D. and J. Davis (2016). “4 Steps to Having More Aha Moments.” The Harvard Business Review. October 12.