Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain

In “The Eureka Factor – Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain”, authors John Kounios and Mark Beeman discuss insight – the kind of insight that might occur to you when taking a walk or taking a shower as opposed to trying to force a solution to a problem in your office under a deadline. (One creative inventor that they mention sets up his environment to encourage insights – at night he will sit on his armchair on his porch looking at the stars, with nondescript music in the background to drown out distracting noises.)
MRI experiments have shown that insight really does happen suddenly, its not just an illusion. (when it happens, there is a ‘gamma’ burst of activity in a part of the brain in the right hemisphere). While ‘analytical thinking’ is a process that builds systematically to a conclusion, insight doesn’t work that way, though it benefits from the thinker having looked at the problem from all angles.

Here are a few conclusions by the authors:

  1. …perceptual attention is closely linked to conceptual attention. Factors that broaden your attention to your surroundings, such as positive mood, have the same effect on the scope of your thinking. Besides taking in lots of seemingly unrelated things, the diffuse mind also entertains seemingly unrelated ideas.

  2. if you question people, you’ll find that some see meaning everywhere, in events like the Japanese tsunami and in cryptic sayings like those above. They will give you impassioned explanations of the significance of such things. Other people deny any inherent meaning. “Stuff just happens. Live with it.

    It was found that people who see meaning in so many life events are also people who trust their hunches and their intuition. Intuition is related to creative thought.

  3. Creative people can be odd:
    The book contains a quote by Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. He said:

    “There’s very high tolerance for eccentricity; there are some people who are very much out there, very creative, to the point where some are strange.” He values that creative eccentricity and is willing to tolerate a lot of the weirdness that often accompanies it. But movies are made by teams of people and not by a single person, so he has to draw a line. “There are a small number of people who are, I would say, socially dysfunctional, very creative,” he said. “We get rid of them.”

So what are the neural underpinnings to the creative – insightful type?

The authors think there is a reduced inhibition.

Inhibition, as a cognitive psychologist thinks of it, regulates emotion, thought, and attention. It’s a basic property of the brain.
…when you purposely ignore something, even briefly, it’s difficult to immediately shift mental gears and pay full attention to it, a phenomenon called “negative priming.” This can sometimes be a minor inconvenience, but it occurs for a reason. When you ignore something, it’s because you deemed it to be unimportant. By inhibiting something that you’ve already labeled as irrelevant, you don’t have to waste time or energy reconsidering it. More generally, inhibition protects you from unimportant, distracting stimuli.

To me, (the blogger), it doesn’t make much sense that creative people would be more distractible. Or at least, I would think that creativity is not just a matter of casting a wide net to gather associations of little relevance to the problem at hand. That could be a part of it, of course.

Supporting that idea is the fact that insightfuls, in a resting state (when not solving problems) have more right-hemisphere activity and less left-hemisphere activity than normals. The right hemisphere differs from the left in that in many of its association areas, the neurons have larger input fields than do left hemisphere neurons. Specifically, right hemisphere pyramidal neurons have more synapses overall and especially more synapses far from the cell body. This indicates that they have larger input fields than corresponding left hemisphere pyramidal neurons. Because cortical connections are spatially organized, the right hemisphere’s larger input fields collect more differentiated inputs, perhaps requiring a variety of inputs to fire. The left hemisphere’s smaller input fields collect similar inputs, likely causing the neuron to respond best to somewhat redundant inputs.

Even the axons in the right hemisphere are longer, suggesting that more far-flung information is used.

Both hemispheres can work together to solve a problem, so you can have the best of the both worlds – a narrow focused approach, and a diffuser, more creative approach.

If you want to increase your own insights, the authors have various suggestions.

  1. Expansive surroundings will help you to induce the creative state. The sense of psychological distance conveyed by spaciousness not only broadens thought to include remote associations, it also weakens the prevention orientation resulting from a feeling of confinement. Even high ceilings have been shown to broaden attention. Small, windowless offices, low ceilings, and narrow corridors may reduce expenses, but if your goal is flexible, creative thought, then you get what you pay for.

  2. You should interact with diverse individuals, including some (nonthreatening) nonconformists.
  3. You should periodically consider your larger goals and how to accomplish them, merely thinking about this will induce a promotion mind-set. Reserve time for long-range planning. Thinking about the distant future stimulates broad, creative thought.
  4. Cultivate a positive mood…To put a twist on Pasteur’s famous saying, chance favors the happy mind.

So if you are tired of working at your desk, wave “The Eureka Factor” at your boss, and tell him that you need to hike in an alpine meadow with your eccentric friend with the guitar who never graduated high school, and maybe he’ll let you do it!

The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight – John Kounios and Mark Beeman
The Eureka Factor – John Kounios and Mark Beeman (2015)

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