Eureka! The science behind moments of sudden insight

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    How and why does that little lightbulb suddenly go on in our minds?

    Scientific discoveries are often fueled by “aha” moments. These sudden insights are like a light bulb going on in our heads. Drexel University psychology professor John Kounios explores the phenomenon in his new book, The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain.

    We can trace the original “eureka” moment back to the Ancient Greek mathmematician Archimedes. He’s said to have shouted “Eureka!” as he lept from his bathtub, elated by his latest discovery.

    Translated from its original Ancient Greek, the word means literally, “I have found it!”

    Kounios cites another famous flash of inspiration—the apple hitting Isaac Newton on the head, sparking the English physicist’s law of gravity.

    “The part about the apple hitting him on the head is apparently not true,” says Kounios. Newton was simply walking in the garden, and witnessed an apple falling, prompting his revolutionary theory.

    Then there’s the moment of genius behind the creation of the animated character “WALL-E.” Pixar’s Andrew Stanton borrowed some binoculars at a baseball game, to get a better view.

    Stanton put them to his face the wrong way around, and WALL-E began to take shape. The little robot would look like a pair of binoculars on a stick.

    Eureka! It’s like an explosion in our brains. And there’s a reason for that, says Kounios.

    “There is a burst of… high frequency electrical activity in the brain at that moment, when the idea pops into awareness,” he says. “In our studies, we’ve shown this occurs in an area of the right hemisphere, the right temporal lobe, just above the right ear.”

    But it’s only recently that scientists have investigated what triggers these flashes of insight.

    A positive mood helps creative bursts to flourish, and sleep is also critical.

    “Sleep is a very powerful inducer of insights,” says Kounios. “It actually restructures your knowledge to bring out details and hidden relationships, which are the stuff of insight.”

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