The Secret to Eureka Moments

Last Updated Mar 31, 2008 11:42 AM EDT

I'm interested in how people come up with ideas. That's one reason why I reviewed Bernd Schmidt's book "Big Think" (see How To Build Bernd Schmitt's Trojan Horse).

So I was eager to read The Road To Eureka! (subscription required), a piece in Science News on recent brain studies and what they say about how humans achieve insights (the title of the article, and its beginning, refers to the tale about Archimedes figuring out a problem while lowering himself into a bath and running naked down the streets of Syracuse yelling Eureka (Greek for "I have found it!).

The article noted that such processes cannot be measured effectively by scientists, but they simulate it using things like challenging word problems and observing brain activity by measuring its electrical activity.

Findings remain preliminary, but important themes are emerging. First, distinctive forms of electrical activity in the brain precede "Aha!" moments and may pave the way to true insights. Second, sudden mental breakthroughs depend on widening the scope of one's attention from a few obvious but unsuitable choices to an extended network of possibilities. As attention expands, diverse pieces of knowledge can be connected to a taxing problem.

In other words, we often solve problems by not thinking about them directly. [Here's a direct link to a recent study by Simone Sandkuhler and Joydeep Bhattacharya Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving]

However, none of the researchers cited in this survey of such research seem to agree on whether we can train our brains to do a better job of coming up with new insights.

The somewhat unsatisfying conclusion:

For now, a consensus about the neural road to "Eureka!" remains out of reach. "Insight lies at the core of human intelligence," Bhattacharya says, "but it's still uncharted territory for brain scientists."

So the secret to Eureka moments is still secret.
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.