Insight is so central to invention that legend has Archimedes, who suddenly realized how to calculate density and volume, jumping from his bath and running naked through the streets yelling “Eureka!”
In our day, “aha” moments may not be so dramatic but still produced Velcro, the World Wide Web and organ transplants.
What creates these brilliant flashes of insight? Scientists are trying to figure it out. So far, they’ve had a few “eureka” moments:
All who wander are not lost. The brain may be most engaged when it’s wandering. An unfocused mind, in fact, may be like flypaper trapping new ideas.
“People assumed that when your mind wandered, it was empty,” says neuroscientist Kalina Christoff at the University of British Columbia. “Mind wandering is a much more active state than we ever imagined, much more active than during reasoning.”
Adds Christoff: “We often assume that if we don’t notice our thoughts, they don’t exist. When we don’t notice them is when we may be thinking most creatively.”
Our brains know what to do. Right before an insight, the brain dampens activity in the visual cortex, as if closing our eyes so we can think.
“You want to quiet the noise in your head to solidify that fragile germ of an idea,” says a scientist at Northwestern University.
And our brains may know an answer before we do. Studies at Northwestern found that the brain threw out a flash of gamma waves a third of a second before its owner sensed a conscious moment of insight. At the University of London, researchers saw high-frequency neural activity up to eight seconds before the answer dawned on the subject.
It helps if you’re in a good mood. State of mind may affect how receptive we are to insight, scientists say. People in a positive mood are more likely to have an insight, researchers at Drexel and Northwestern found.
— Adapted from “A Wandering Mind Heads Straight Toward Insight,” Robert Lee Hotz, The Wall Street Journal.
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