When inspiration strikes
New studies conducted into how our brains work help to show why flashes of insight come when we least expect them and how we can help them to occur more often, writes CLAIRE O'CONNELL
THE HISTORY of science is littered with stories – some more verified than others – of people who had a sudden flash of inspiration. The fanciful episode of Archimedes jumping out of a bath and shouting Eureka when he figured out the water displaced by an irregular object is a measure of its volume. Isaac Newton seeing an apple fall from a tree and figuring out his theory of gravity. And William Rowan Hamilton suddenly “getting” the fundamental formula for quaternion multiplication as he walked in Dublin in 1843, and scratching the information into Broom Bridge at Cabra.
In everyday life we can have those flashes of insight too. The results may not change the world but they can help us to solve problems and create new ideas. So what happens when that light bulb goes on? New studies of the brain are providing insight into those sudden “aha” moments.
One of the characteristics of human brains that could help facilitate those creative breakthroughs are what some neuroscientists term “promiscuous interfaces” in the brain, according to Prof Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin.
Much as workers in office cubicles can easily talk to their nearby colleagues, information seems to be able to percolate between areas of the brain’s cortex, he explains.
“When you compare the organisation of the human brain to the brains of other species we have, it appears, relatively greater interaction between the different parts of our association cortices,” he says.
“So we have this free-associative capacity because our brains are organised in a way that you don’t have these extreme segregations of knowledge.”
Meanwhile, studies have sought to see what happens when we solve a problem either by working through options or through sudden insight.
Mark Jung Beeman at Northwestern University and colleagues looked at brain activity when people solved association problems, and distinguished between taking the exhaustive search route and having an instant breakthrough.
“A network of brain regions becomes more active when people solve with sudden insight, compared to when they solve analytically,” Beeman says.
Those areas include the right anterior temporal lobe, which helps to draw together semantic information that is only distantly related. In the experiments, this right temporal region was seen both with functional MRI, which gives spatial information about where the activity is in the brain, and EEG readings, which give information on timing.
Other parts of the brain seem to be involved too, including areas associated with memory and with cognitive control. “For insight, people often have to switch from one strong but misleading solution candidate or strategy, to the weaker but correct one,” he says. “That requires detection of an alternative candidate and switching to it.”
The combination of brain areas allows people to summate activation from several weak connections, so that the “whole picture” – a re-conception of the problem – gradually strengthens but initially remains below consciousness, he explains.
“Eventually, this summated activation is detected, and some processes can help people switch attention to it, allowing the idea to emerge into consciousness,” he says. “But it emerges as a whole – hence the strong sense of confidence. You ‘just know’ that the answer is right, and that it connects to all parts of the problem.”