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Brain Science Behind The Aha Moment

by Sheron Long on October 10, 2013

Nebish with lightbulb overhead, illustrating the brain science behind the aha moment

Don’t bother me. I’m having an aha moment!
© iStockphoto

What Do Aha Moments Feel Like?

Flex your brain and you may find out. Look at these three words. What’s another word that can combine with each word and produce a familiar compound or a two-word phrase?

loser  /  throat  /  spot   

Here’s another:

show  /  life  /  row

Try some harder examples, knowing that the word you think of can combine at the beginning or the end of the words in the set:

crab  /  pine  /  sauce

fence  /  card  /  master

When you came up with a solution,* was it sudden and obvious? If so, you probably experienced an aha moment and found the solution by insight.

What Do Aha Moments Look Like in Your Brain?

Researchers John Kounios, Professor of Psychology at Drexel University, and Mark Jung-Beeman, Associate Professor of Psychology at Northwestern University, have long been interested in how the brain performs when it solves problems analytically or, conversely, by insight.

In an insight solution, the professors expected an “Aha!” when the brain connects known concepts in new ways to get to the solution. And, if insight solutions and non-insight solutions are different cognitive processes, they knew the underlying brain activity would look different as well.

In the study:

  • Researchers trained participants in the recognition of an insight.**
    Functional magnetic resolution image showing location of increased brain activity during an aha moment, like those occurring from an insight solution in brain science research

    Figure 1. fMRI, showing area of increased brain activity during an insight solution

  • Participants viewed sets of words, including the ones above. When they found the combining word, they pressed a button and said the solution. They then pressed another button to say whether they found the solution by insight or not.
  • For about one-half of the participants, brain activity was mapped via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
  • For the other half, gamma wave power was measured, and comparisons drawn between those who solved the problem by insight and those who did not. Gamma waves are particularly fast, high-frequency brain waves whose power can be measured by electroencephalography (EEG), and changes in power can be shown over time.

The researchers found that insight solutions are a unique cognitive process with a distinct pattern of brain activity. The yellow area below shows the increase in gamma power for people who found the solution by insight (red line) and those who did not (blue line).

Graph, showing results of brain science research into aha moments

Figure 2. Gamma waves increase during an insight solution.
Y-axis shows the power of gamma brain waves. X-axis shows time elapsed in the trial, from prep to display of the prompt (first green dot) to button press signaling the solution (yellow arrow).

Oh, I See

Wow! So that’s what an aha moment looks like when it happens in your brain!

Brain map of increased gamma wave activity, measured by electroencephalography, during an aha moment like those from insight solutions in brain science research

Figure 3. Bright area indicates brain activity during an insight solution, measured by EEG. Red dots show placement of EEG electrodes.

Both the mapping done by fMRI (see Figure 2) and that done during the EEG measurements (see right) show an area of increased activity above the right ear.

Professor Jung-Beeman cautions against labeling this area as “the insight area” since it is involved in other tasks, and other parts of the brain are involved in insight solutions.

However, the fact that this area was active during insight solutions and inactive in non-insight solutions shows that the two are processed differently.

It is particularly noteworthy that the active area for insight solutions to the trial’s verbal problems is in the right hemisphere since it is the left hemisphere that is most often related to language processing.

Why Do Aha Moments Matter?

In an aha moment, a person has a sudden comprehension, often reinterpreting a situation or combining known elements differently to solve a problem or invent something new.

Not only is it personally satisfying to solve a problem, get a joke, figure out a puzzle, derive a literary theme, or attain a personal insight, but creativity and advancements in just about any field depend on insights, or aha moments.

Brain science research from Dr. Kounios,  Dr. Jung-Beeman, and others is helping us understand how insights happen so that we might maximize their frequency and impact.

Aha moments lead to innovations—all beneficial, whether they affect one individual’s personal satisfaction or impact the world. Since our goal at OIC Moments is to feed your mind and fuel your imagination with aha moments, we thought you’d like to know the evolving brain science behind them.

Man watering his brain to encourage the growth of aha moments

Feed your mind and increase your aha moments.
© Spots Illustration / Veer

*Solutions are: 1. sore (sore loser, sore throat, sore spot); 2. boat (showboat, lifeboat, rowboat); 3. apple (crabapple, pineapple, applesauce); 4. post (fence post, postcard, postmaster).

**The definition of insight used in the study: “A feeling of insight is a kind of ‘Aha!’ characterized by suddenness and obviousness. You may not be sure how you came up with the answer, but are relatively confident that it is correct without having to mentally check it. It is as though the answer came into mind all at once—when you first thought of the word, you simply knew it was the answer. This feeling does not have to be overwhelming, but should resemble what was just described.”

Research results and Figures 1-3 were originally published by Dr. Kounios, Dr. Jung-Beeman, and others in “Neural Activity When People Solve Verbal Problems with Insight” in PLOS Biology.

To learn more about the brain, see this slide show from the Mayo Clinic. 

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


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