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.”

So are we born with the ability to solve by insight? Or can it change?

“People are likely to differ in their tendency to solve either analytically or more creatively by insight,” says Beeman. “But they can also vary from time to time, such as when their mood varies.

“Anxiety narrows attention. This often is useful, especially in analytic problem-solving. But the narrow attention may suppress or ignore the weak activations that are necessary to solve creatively or with insight.”

On the other hand, a positive mood can help insight. “In positive mood, attention is relaxed, and people can detect and switch to weaker associations, which potentially lead to solution,” says Beeman. “People in a positive mood solve more of our problems overall, but specifically solve more by insight.”

The environment could also boost the chances of insight, notes O’Mara, who describes how large cities or clusters such as Silicon Valley can be hives of creativity, though we may not take that into account. “There’s a concept in psychology called the fundamental attribution error,” he says. “We focus on the individual, and what we don’t see are the invisible effects of the system they are organised in and the context in which they work.”

Understanding how the environment can spark creativity is important for centres such as universities, he notes.

“For intellectually rich productivity to occur you need other individuals to interact with and to be able to bounce ideas off them. In a university you need a research income, you need a constant stream of really good students and you need venture capital to commercialise,” he says. “Because, think about it, you can take a brilliant individual and put them in a desert and nothing is going to happen – the invisible context and culture is just as important.”

Daydream believer can have all the answers in a flash

HAVE YOU ever noticed how you can be working on a problem and getting nowhere, then the answer suddenly hits you when you are driving home, doing housework or just sitting with a cup of tea, having a quiet break?

Daydreaming or doing something mundane may encourage those breakthrough moments, says Prof Shane O’Mara, professor of experimental brain research at Trinity College Dublin.

“During our waking hours we spend a huge amount of time daydreaming, possibly as much as a fifth of our waking day or longer, having mind-wandering events,” he says. “And there’s a strong sense from the literature that if you want to solve a difficult problem, you need to have a lot of time focused on the difficult problem but you must have time off from it as well. Either move away from it, preferably have some period of daydreaming or doing something humdrum, doing something different and take yourself out of the problem you are working on and then come back to it.”

Though he warns not to overdo it with that particular strategy.

“You don’t want to spend all your time daydreaming,” he says. “You have to get down to some action as well.”

And he adds that fortune truly favours the prepared mind – putting the groundwork into thinking about a problem or idea can set the scene for insight.

“Aha moments only happen to people who are prepared for them,” says O’Mara. “They don’t tend to happen to people who aren’t prepared.”

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