Making Eureka! Happen:  On Inviting Ah-hah Insights!

By Shlomo  Maital        


    All of us have experienced a “eureka” moment – a sudden flash of insight that yields a creative solution to a problem.   Eureka is Greek for “I have found it!”, allegedly shouted when Archimedes discovered his famous displacement principle.

   Can you do things that make ah-hah! moments more frequent and more powerful?  Apparently you can.  In researching neuroscience for an upcoming conference, I found an article, “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight”, by John Kounios (Drexel U.) and Mark Beeman (Northwestern U.).  [Recent Directions in Neurological Science, 2009].  

   The authors use EEG (electromagnetic imaging) and fMRI (functional MRI imaging) of the brain to physically map eureka moments.  They give subjects a ‘compound remote association’ problem:  e.g., Find a single word, that can form a compound word or familiar 2-word phrase with EACH of three words.  E.g.,  crab, pine, sauce.    One answer: “apple” (applesauce, crabapple, pineapple).  They map brain patterns while subjects tackle the problem.  They then ask the subjects to say whether the solution “popped into their minds” (eureka) or resulted from analysis (e.g. ‘cake’…crabcake, but pinecake no; reject cake; crabgrass…no, applegrass doesn’t work..etc.).  

  Here is what they, and others, have found:  Eureka problem-solving “can be influenced by the prior preparatory state”.  As Pasteur said, “chance favors the prepared mind.”  Eureka comes to those who prepare for it.  A relaxed, pleasant state of mind is far better for eureka than tension. (Attention, companies that put workers’ feet to the fire to develop ideas).  Humor is very conducive to eureka.  And most important:  “individuals high in creativity habitually deploy their attention in a diffuse rather than a focused manner”.  I.e., we get to eureka, not in a straight linear line, but zig-zag. 

    The authors believe you can organize ‘eureka’ thinking, as a ‘cascade of processes’ that generate aha!    I agree.  Zoom in!  Think hard about a problem.  Then let your mind wander. Soar into the clouds. Zoom out!  Think of wild ideas that make you laugh.  Bring a shopping cart with you, and dump all the possible ideas into it.  At some point – pause.    Zoom in again.  Take your shopping cart and start to empty its contents.  Choose one solution in it you think will work.  Listen carefully to your gut.  This could be a eureka! Or aha!  Moment.  If it is – listen to it!  And then – get to work.