Sparking Eureka

Everyone has aha moments when great ideas or solutions to oft-confounding problems seemingly appear in our heads out of nowhere.

Unsurprisingly, there is a scientific explanation for such moments. In the book “Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain,” psychologists Mark Beeman and John Kounis explain the brain science behind sudden insights.

According to the authors, great insights are likely to come when people are in relaxed, calm states.

Talent Management spoke to Beeman, a Northwestern University psychology professor and researcher, more on the topic. Edited excerpts follow.

MBeeman edited
Mark Beeman, co-author of "Eureka Factor."

What is a eureka moment?

A eureka moment is what people experience when they solve a problem by sudden insight. There’s sort of a subjective experience that comes along when you solve certain problems, where the solution comes to you seemingly from nowhere — but obviously it comes from somewhere. It’s coming from your brain and brain processes, maybe some processes that are outside your awareness. But when it comes to you, it seems to come from nowhere, and as soon as it comes to mind, you just have a certainty about it being right and it seems to be different from what you were thinking before.

It involves some kind of ‘restructuring,’ the term often used, or a new way of looking at that problem that allows you to solve it in a way that, once you see the solution, seems quite simple even though you weren’t able to solve it before. And it’s a very pleasant and surprising feeling; it’s a mix of different feelings and phenomena that go into the experience.

What’s happening in the brain when somebody has this sudden insight?

So, there are a number of different things that happen. Sometimes our research, like any brain research, gets portrayed in a simplified way, like, ‘Oh, here’s our insight into the brain,’ and what we actually find is a number of brain areas that are all involved in creating this sudden understanding or sudden solution to a problem, and they kind of have to work together in a very coordinated fashion to produce sudden insight. We do see some sudden changes — including a burst of activity in [the] right temporal lobe — that we believe is actually involved in the idea coming into consciousness.

But it wouldn’t get there on its own; there’s actually a whole network of other things that happen — some of them just before this one, and some of them that build up somewhat slowly, including a sort of brain state or state readiness that is sometimes favorable to producing these insights, whereas other kinds of brain states are really more conducive to providing a analytic solution to a problem.

What is the relationship between insight and intuition?

Within psychology, we have our own operational definition of these things, and in the real world, of course, people use insight in a whole number of ways, some of which are actually related to that — and likewise with intuition.

One of them is a feeling that you’re onto something like, ‘I don’t know what the answer is, but I feel like there’s something inside my head telling me there’s something here, there’s some kind of connection, some possible solution — I just don’t know what it is yet.’ So that’s one form of intuition: this sense that there’s something there.

‘Often these insights seem to occur to people when they’re not trying to work on the problem.’

—Mark Beeman,psychologist and co-author of “Eureka Factor”


And another way is that ways in which your decision-making can be influenced outside of your awareness. So someone gives you a choice to make and you’re not quite sure why, but you have a bias to go one way or the other and that might be based on intuition. It’s a way of influencing your decisions or actions or behavior in ways that you’re unaware of, so you’re not quite sure why but you have a feeling that this is the correct answer. Or sometimes you’re not even aware that you have the answer — if we force you to make a choice between two answers, you’ll choose one based in some kind of unconscious processing.

Are there things people can do to spur sudden insightlike thinking?

We believe so — but I have to give the caveat that we’re solving a certain kind of problem in the lab. We need to generate a lot of insight so we can measure them, so we give people problems we believe they can answer and can find the solution to, so they’re already three steps into the process.

In the real world, you have to sort of figure out what the problem is and analyze it and [gather] a lot of information and put it together. What seems to work for a lot of people is being in sort of a relaxed, calm mood, and often these insights seem to occur to people when they’re not trying to work on the problem. We believe that because you’re at some level, whether it’s unconsciously or barely aware, you’re still processing the problem but without much attention, and that’s like I said before — it’s often you want to relax your attention so you can let those weaker ideas come to the surface.

What might a leader do to create an environment where a team could inspire eureka moments?

I can’t say I have a really good formula for that yet, but you might say that you might try to structure your team and your tasks in ways that might simulate these parts of the brain processes. Maybe you need some people to really study and do the information gathering and so that the team understands the problem thoroughly well, and maybe then have other people more efficient at pulling together the information in these unusual ways.

I think you may have to think about this in light of how a team works. I think partly just allowing people to be aware of their own processing. Part of our message in the book is we can’t give you a recipe to three steps to better insight, because it depends on so many different factors. But being aware of your own processing and being aware of the problem that you’re working on can be a very useful tool.

 Whether you as a leader are aware of how your team is functioning or your team is aware of how they themselves function, then it could be useful.