Tag Archives: how insights happen in the brain

New research on how insights happen in the brain

the aha moment

A well known physicist once said that all great discoveries in science where made in one of the three B’s…bus, bed and bath. It’s well documented that we get most of our good ideas when we’re not thinking about solving problems.

This is because of the principle of incubation.

Incubation works because your subconscious mind is always processing information. You usually set your problem aside for a few hours, days, weeks or even years while you move on to other projects. This allows your subconscious to continue working on the original challenge.

Look at the grid below and note that shadowy gray spots mysteriously appear at the intersections. However, when you concentrate on any specific intersection, the spot disappears.

connect the dots illusion

Sometimes ideas, like the gray spots, mysteriously appear only when you are not concentrating on them. Modern science recognizes this phenomenon yet cannot explain it…until now.

As I was checking my email this morning I got the and found a surprising section about “the science behind the aha moment.”

According to Drs. Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths’ College (London) and Bhavin Sheth of the University of Houston (Texas) they’ve come up with a

Previous attempts by researchers have proven to be very insightful, but:

Dr Bhattacharya and Dr Sheth have taken a third approach. They have selected some brain-teasing but practical problems in the hope that these would get closer to mimicking real insight. To qualify, a puzzle had to be simple, not too widely known and without a methodical solution. The researchers then asked 18 young adults to try to solve these problems while their brainwaves were monitored using an electroencephalograph (EEG).

A typical brain-teaser went like this. There are three light switches on the ground-floor wall of a three-storey house. Two of the switches do nothing, but one of them controls a bulb on the second floor. When you begin, the bulb is off. You can only make one visit to the second floor. How do you work out which switch is the one that controls the light?

And the results of the experiment:

This problem, or one equivalent to it, was presented on a computer screen to a volunteer when that volunteer pressed a button. The electrical activity of the volunteer’s brain (his brainwave pattern, in common parlance) was recorded by the EEG from the button’s press. Each volunteer was given 30 seconds to read the puzzle and another 60 to 90 seconds to solve it. If he had not done so in the time allotted, a hint appeared. In the case of the light-switch puzzle, the suggestion was that you turn one switch on for a while, then turn it off.

Some people worked it out; others did not. The significant point, though, was that the EEG predicted who would fall where. Those volunteers who went on to have an insight (in this case that on their one and only visit to the second floor they could use not just the light but the heat produced by a bulb as evidence of an active switch) had had different brainwave activity from those who never got it. In the right frontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with shifting mental states, there was an increase in high-frequency gamma waves (those with 47-48 cycles a second). Moreover, the difference was noticeable up to eight seconds before the volunteer realized he had found the solution. Dr Sheth thinks this may be capturing the “transformational thought” (the light-bulb moment, as it were) in action, before the brain’s “owner” is consciously aware of it.

Even though this was a quick experiment we can see that the subconscious mind is hard at work processing information and at any given moment will generate an insight before we know it.

Photo Credit: falsereality748

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