The Eureka Factor

Posted on July 18, 2016

On his 45-minute commute to and from his college office in Philadelphia, John Kounios picks the quiet car on the regional rail. No ringing cellphones. His thoughts wander, perhaps to the future or to something that makes him happy. Once he's achieved a defocused state in which his mind is most open, Kounios meditates on a problem he wants to solve or turns over a hunch. Relaxed, he allows the associations to flow.

Often enough, Kounios has an aha! moment, that sudden awareness of a new idea, new perspective, or solution to a conundrum. The scientist says he has gotten some of his best, most insightful ideas this way. That’s why he goes to considerable lengths to encourage this distinct type of thought, something he argues is not done nearly enough.

The path to creativity, though, is no easy one, especially in a 24/7 connected, beeping, blinking, always-in-information-overdrive world. “I really think the modern lifestyle is not as conducive to this deep creativity that produces really powerful insights,” says Kounios, co-author of the recent The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain. “We’re too busy, too distracted, too stressed out. We don’t get enough sleep. We’re too tired. It’s hard to get into this creative state.”

How do folks get those out-of-the-blue ideas? Let us count the ways:

Consider the iconic tune “Yesterday.” For Paul McCartney, sleep was his muse. The melody for one of the Beatles’ most beloved songs came to him complete in a dream. He immediately got out of bed, the story goes, and tickled the keys of his nearby piano.

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin is infamous for his bouts of writer’s block. The creator of The West Wing and numerous other hit shows takes showers — sometimes six a day — to break down his mental dam and spur the flow of ideas and words.

How do you study a thought that is sudden and unpredictable? Brain scans. At the time, technologies such as the EEG and functional MRI (fMRI) had not been applied to insight research, a field traditionally built on behavioral experiments.

Kounios’ work on the neural basis of semantic memory (how people acquire, use, and sometimes forget knowledge) involved EEG scans. Through his studies on language comprehension, Beeman was versed in fMRI, which measures brain activity through changes in blood flow. He was convinced that the right hemisphere, used to draw together distantly related information, also contributed to aha! moments.

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Category(s):Creative Blocks

Source material from Saturday Evening Post