The Science of ‘Aha Moments’
See why there is a predictable pattern to creativity
In the latest episode of Taking Note: Conversations with Evernote, we sat down with Allen Gannett, CEO of TrackMaven, to explore the common myths behind creativity. Read on below for an exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Creative Curve.
I want you to take a moment to study these three words:
Can you think of a single word that could be put next to all three and still make sense?
The answer is “ice” (ice cream, ice skate, ice water).
If you came up with the solution, how’d you do it? Did it pop into your head instantly, or did you pore through various possible solutions? If you didn’t get it at all, what was your approach as you tried to figure it out?
These kinds of word puzzles tend to fascinate scientists because, depending on the person’s experiences, they can be solved either through logical analysis or via aha moments.
Logical analysis is straightforward: You ponder whether a word “works” and think through the puzzle logically, step by step.
Aha moments are the flashes of genius we’ve talked about throughout the book. With these solutions, the answer to the puzzle would come immediately upon seeing it or after a delay, but without conscious thought.
Since these kinds of puzzles can be solved using either approach, they give researchers insights into the science of aha moments.
Edward Bowden is a researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Parkside. Bowden, along with a team from Northwestern University’s Creative Brain Lab and Drexel University, sought to understand the neuroscience behind aha moments. Were they truly a magical experience, or was there perhaps a biological explanation for them?
As part of their study, they tasked subjects to solve various of these word puzzles while connected to an EEG (electroencephalography) monitor, which can quickly detect the moments when electrical activity takes place in the brain, or an fMRI machine, which as a reminder, is the machine that can pinpoint where brain activity is taking place by measuring blood flow in the brain.
Bowden and his team hoped that by using these two machines they could see both when and where the brain was activated during aha moments.
When connected to the EEG machine, the participants wore goggles that revealed one of the word puzzles, and were given thirty seconds to solve it. Once they came up with an answer, they were then asked whether or not the solution came as an aha moment or as the result of logical analysis.
Fifty-six percent of the answers were attributed to an aha moment, 42 percent to logical analysis, while the remaining 2 percent checked neither box. On the surface at least, there seemed to be a minimal difference between these two methods; regardless of which one was experienced, the solutions showed up roughly ten seconds later.
But the EEG readings told a very different story.
Electrical brain waves in the gamma band are thought to be activated when our brains engage in perception and language. It’s one of the brain waves the scientists were most interested in studying.
When participants solved problems via flashes of genius, there was a burst of gamma band activity 0.3 seconds before they came up with an answer. The researchers believe that this burst in electrical activity signals when the solution enters a person’s consciousness. It represents the “aha!”
This means aha moments exhibit their own unique brain wave pattern. Have you ever looked at a crossword puzzle question and were unable to come up with a solution? Then, very suddenly, the answer hits you? Well, this feeling of being struck with a sudden solution is reflected by the activity in the gamma bands.
So where exactly did the solution come from?
Finding the Aha
We don’t even realize our brains are doing what they’re doing — which is why all this unseen work ultimately leads to what we think of as aha moments.
To find out, Bowden and the team of researchers repeated the experiment while monitoring the subjects using an fMRI machine. What they found was that when participants reported aha moments, activity showed up in the right hemisphere of their brains. Not only do flashes of genius have a unique electrical pattern in the brain, they also have their own discrete location.
It may be a cliché to talk about the “left brain” and the “right brain,” but at the same time, it’s critical to our understanding of where creative ideas originate.
Generally speaking, the left hemisphere of our brains is where we process the dominant meanings of things. This is where we retrieve straightforward or contextually relevant definitions of words or concepts. When someone asks us what color the sky is, the left hemisphere of our brains shouts out, “Blue!”
The left hemisphere is also where logical analysis processing occurs. For example, our left hemisphere is activated when we’re asked to solve complex math problems. Why? Because solving for x asks that we bring specific relevant concepts to the forefront of our consciousness before we work through a step-by-step solution. This often feels like a slower process, as we consciously have to work at something.
The right hemisphere of our brains is where we store more metaphorical associations. Studies show that our right hemisphere is activated when we hear jokes that, say, rely on puns, or when we try to make sense of metaphors. The right hemisphere processes problems by searching for associations between seemingly different concepts with underlying commonalities. This process is subconscious, meaning we’re not aware when our right hemisphere is at work, searching for connections.
Sometimes it moves quickly, for example, when we hear a standup comedian’s routine and automatically know why it’s funny (or not funny). Other times, our right hemisphere keeps working through a problem subconsciously, discovering a solution only much later. Since the right hemisphere operates below our general level of awareness, when it does come up with an answer, we’re seldom aware of the effort it took, which is why we often experience this processing as more automated.
As Bowden explains, “The right hemisphere is processing language all the time just like the left is, but what we’re saying is that the structure of the two hemispheres is slightly different and that connections in the left hemisphere are shorter, stronger, and to more direct associations while the connections in the right hemisphere are longer, weaker, and to more distant associations. If I say ‘worm,’ you might consciously think ‘fishing’ and ‘earthworm’ — a left-hemisphere activation. But in the right hemisphere, when I say worm, you might think fishing and earthworms, but also ‘bookworm’ and ‘gummy worm,’ and even ‘earworm’ [a song that gets stuck in your head and repeats endlessly].”
We don’t consciously switch between processing in our right and left hemispheres, either. Instead, our brains process problems in both hemispheres at the same time, the difference being that, as I mentioned, the processing of our right hemisphere generally operates beneath our level of conscious awareness. We don’t even realize our brains are doing what they’re doing — which is why all this unseen work ultimately leads to what we think of as aha moments.
The Three Types of Aha Moments
Creativity is like a muscle. If you train right, you can be a creative heavyweight.
Researchers believe there are three origins of such aha moments.
The first are what I call shower moments. In this scenario, you might already have a solution to something in your brain’s right hemisphere, but the activity in the left hemisphere is crowding it out. Once the left hemisphere’s logical processing fails to deliver an answer, its activity tends to fade. Once the left hemisphere’s activity falls below that of the right hemisphere, the answer from the right hemisphere pops up as if by magic. Aha!
This is why when we wake up, go out for a run, or take a shower, we often experience what feel to us like “flashes of genius.” Generally these are occasions when our brains aren’t overwhelmed with thoughts, the result being that we experience what seems like sudden inspiration. But if you want to know the truth, it’s really just the result of our brains being empty of the crowded chaos of our left brain thinking, which in turn allows long-percolating right brain ideas to make their appearance.
The second origin of aha moments is through combination. Here, your brain’s right hemisphere, knowing that one single concept is unable to give a satisfactory answer, is subconsciously working to connect multiple concepts. If your right hemisphere is able to braid together what feels like a workable solution, it becomes activated. It’s this sudden burst of brain activity that creates that flash-of-genius feeling.
As we learned from the two-cords experiment, the third origin of aha moments involves a trigger. In this case, an environmental factor subconsciously ignites an association with something already stored in your brain’s right hemisphere. For example, if we get stuck working on a crossword puzzle and an hour later walk past the word we were seeking on a billboard, we may well experience a flash of genius without even being aware we saw the missing word.
All three of these methods happen below the average human being’s conscious level of awareness. Is it any surprise, then, that these solutions often feel mystical and sent from above by some benevolent deity? In reality, it’s not magic, it’s biology. Bowden explained that aha moments are simply “a normal cognitive process but they have a surprising result.”
The aha moment is a key part of the “creative genius” narrative. Mozart or Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs is just relaxing one day and then BAM! A great idea explodes into their brains. But, as the science makes clear, this just isn’t how it works. Creativity is like a muscle. If you train right, you can be a creative heavyweight.
Adapted from THE CREATIVE CURVE: HOW TO DEVELOP THE RIGHT IDEA, AT THE RIGHT TIME © 2018 by Allen Gannett. Published by Currency, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.