In a book perfect for readers of Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, David Eagleman’s Incognito, and Leonard Mlodinow’s Subliminal, the cognitive neuroscientists who discovered how the brain has aha moments—sudden creative insights—explain how they happen, when we need them, and how we can have more of them to enrich our lives and empower personal and professional success.
Eureka or aha moments are sudden realizations that expand our understanding of the world and ourselves, conferring both personal growth and practical advantage. Such creative insights, as psychological scientists call them, were what conveyed an important discovery in the science of genetics to Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, the melody of a Beatles ballad to Paul McCartney, and an understanding of the cause of human suffering to the Buddha. But these moments of clarity are not given only to the famous. Anyone can have them.
In The Eureka Factor, John Kounios and Mark Beeman explain how insights arise and what the scientific research says about stimulating more of them. They discuss how various conditions affect the likelihood of your having an insight, when insight is helpful and when deliberate methodical thought is better suited to a task, what the relationship is between insight and intuition, and how the brain’s right hemisphere contributes to creative thought.
Written in a lively, engaging style, this book goes beyond scientific principles to offer productive techniques for realizing your creative potential—at home and at work. The authors provide compelling anecdotes to illustrate how eureka experiences can be a key factor in your life. Attend a dinner party with Christopher Columbus to learn why we need insights. Go to a baseball game with the director of a classic Disney Pixar movie to learn about one important type of aha moment. Observe the behind-the-scenes arrangements for an Elvis Presley concert to learn why the timing of insights is crucial.
Accessible and compelling, The Eureka Factor is a fascinating look at the human brain and its seemingly infinite capacity to surprise us.
Praise for The Eureka Factor
“Delicious . . . In The Eureka Factor, neuroscientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman give many other examples of [a] kind of lightning bolt of insight, but back this up with the latest brain-imaging research.”—Newsweek
“An incredible accomplishment . . . [The Eureka Factor] is not just a chronicle of the journey that numerous scientists (including the authors) have taken to examine insight but is also a fascinating guide to how advances in science are made in general. Messrs. Kounios and Beeman examine how a parade of clever experiments can be designed to answer specific questions and rule out alternative possibilities. . . . Wonderful ideas appear as if out of nowhere—and we are delighted.”—The Wall Street Journal
“An excellent title for those interested in neuroscience or creativity . . . The writing is engaging and readable, mixing stories of famous perceptions with explanations of how such revelations happen.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“A lively and accessible ‘brain’ book with wide appeal.”—Booklist
“[An] ingenious, thoughtful update on how the mind works.”—Kirkus Reviews
“The Eureka Factor presents a fascinating and illuminating account of the creative process and how to foster it.”—James J. Heckman, Nobel laureate in economics
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John Kounios, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Drexel University and director of its doctoral program in Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences. He has published cognitive neuroscience research on insight, creativity, problem solving, memory, and Alzheimer’s disease. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. He is a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science and the Psychonomic Society and serves on a National Science Foundation advisory panel.
Mark Beeman, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Northwestern University, where he studies the brain bases of creative cognition and problem solving, how mood affects attention and cognition, and how the right and left sides of the brain differ in function. His research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Office of Naval Research. He is a Kavli fellow of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, and serves on a National Science Foundation advisory panel.
Kounios and Beeman’s research on insight has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Times (U.K.), as well as on National Public Radio and in a BBC Television documentary. Their work was profiled in The New Yorker and is part of an exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.
New Light, New Sight
But who can count or weigh such lightning flashes of the mind?
Who can trace out the secret threads by which our conceptions are united?
—Hermann von Helmholtz, scientist
Helen Keller didn’t know what a word was. When she was nineteen months old, a brief illness left her permanently deaf and blind, preventing her from learning to speak. Eventually, she developed a few signs for basic communication, but they were just gestures. She was imprisoned within a world of palpable objects. The realm of words and ideas was beyond her grasp.
In 1887, when Helen was six years old, her parents hired a young teacher named Anne Sullivan to tutor her at home. Anne, who became Helen’s lifelong friend and companion, attempted to teach Helen words by tracing them on her young student’s palms. Helen learned several tracings this way, but she wasn’t able to comprehend that they were words. “I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation,” she later explained.
One day, Helen and Anne had a tussle over the words “mug” and “water.” Helen couldn’t connect the tracings with their respective objects. At a later lesson, she became upset and smashed her doll. Anne tried a different approach. She took Helen to the well house and directed her to hold her mug under the spout while Anne pumped water. As the water poured over Helen’s mug and hand, Anne traced the letters “w-a-t-e-r” on Helen’s other hand. That’s when it happened. According to Anne, “The coming so close upon the sensation of the cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.” As Helen later explained, “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living joy awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”
In that amazing instant, Helen realized that the scribbles on her hand represented objects in the world and that she could use these symbols to think and to communicate with others. “I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.”
Thus, a blind girl came to “see.”
Helen ultimately learned to read Braille and to write. She learned to speak, even though she couldn’t hear, and to read lips with her hands. She graduated from college and went on to write many books of social and spiritual commentary. Mark Twain, Alexander Graham Bell, Charlie Chaplin, and other luminaries of the day befriended her. President Lyndon Johnson awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She continues to inspire generations to hope and to achieve.
All of this was empowered by a moment of insight.
“Things just clicked.” “Everything just snapped into place.” “It was a spark of inspiration . . . a bolt of lightning . . . a flash of insight.” “Like a lightbulb turning on.” “I had an epiphany.” “Suddenly, I saw things in a new light.”
These expressions all refer to what is commonly called a eureka or an aha moment and what psychologists call “insight” and consider to be a form of creativity. It’s the sudden experience of comprehending something that you didn’t understand before, thinking about a familiar thing in a novel way, or combining familiar things to form something new. Insights are quantum leaps of thought, creative breakthroughs that power our lives and our history. Insight conveyed a theory of gravity to Sir Isaac Newton, the melody of a Beatles ballad to Sir Paul McCartney, and an understanding of the cause of human suffering to the Buddha. Nearly everyone has had aha moments of sudden clarity. They can and do change our lives.
Much has been written purporting to explain how insight works and how you can make it work better. Almost all of it is based on opinions and informal observations rather than on scientifically established facts. However entertaining or inspiring those popular writings may be, science has now gone much further than anecdotal musings can take us. It’s not that opinions and observations are bad. They can be a helpful starting point for inquiry. But there is a more complete approach—a scientific approach. Science finishes the job by putting opinions and observations to the test wherever possible.
Individual fields of science have had periods of extraordinary development, often spurred by new technologies. Astronomy was energized by the invention of the telescope, as biology was by the microscope. The last quarter century has seen the emergence of a new field—cognitive neuroscience—fueled by techniques for measuring the activity of a brain while it works. Techniques such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and high-density electroencephalography (EEG) have enabled us to explore the brain in ways that elucidate how we perceive, remember, think, feel—and have insights. We and our colleagues have used these brain-imaging techniques for more than a decade to uncover what happens in the brain when a person has an aha moment. Combined with the behavioral research methods of cognitive psychology, brain-imaging studies have revealed new and unexpected aspects of insight that would not have been apparent from measuring a person’s behavior alone.
We had two aims in writing this book. The first was to explain, based on the latest research from cognitive neuroscience and psychology, exactly what insight is and how it works in the brain. The second was to show you how to use this information to enhance your own creativity and problem solving. These goals are closely intertwined. Media reports, some inaccurate, have trumpeted new research about various factors thought to enhance creativity: Relax, take a vacation, look at the color blue, and so forth. Indeed, there are strategies that will enhance creativity. But these strategies work only when applied correctly—at the right time and in the right context—and the only way to apply them correctly is to grasp how they influence the way you think. Haphazard changes made without comprehension could cause the opposite of what was intended. Our goal is to provide a scientifically based understanding that will enable you to realize your creative potential—at home, at work, at large. In particular, much can be learned by considering how people who tend to experience many insights—we call them “Insightfuls”—think, and how they differ from “Analysts,” who tend to rely more on deliberate, methodical thought.
A Matter of Interpretation
Before we proceed, we should explain more precisely what we mean by “insight.” The word is slippery because it’s used to describe a variety of related things. Most often, people use the term to refer to any type of deep understanding, especially of oneself. However, for psychological scientists, insight is more specific and intricate.
Insights have two key features. The first one is that they pop into your awareness, seemingly out of nowhere. They don’t feel like a product of your ongoing thoughts. In fact, you can’t control them in the way you can control your deliberate, conscious thought. Insights are like cats. They can be coaxed but don’t usually come when called.
The other key feature of insights is that they yield, often literally, a different way of looking at things.
Consider the cube on the left side of figure 1.1.
This is a Necker cube. The interesting thing about it is that its appearance is ambiguous. As you can see in the right side of the figure, either the lower square or the higher square of this transparent cube could be viewed as closer to you. With a shift of attention, you can see it in either of these two ways. But you can’t see it in both ways simultaneously because the two interpretations are incompatible: a single face of the cube can’t be both closer to you and farther from you at the same time. And when you shift your attention from one of these squares to the other, the change in your interpretation is abrupt. This kind of perspective shift is a prototype for insight.
The Gestalt psychologists of the early twentieth century liked to point out that we can interpret almost any type of object, situation, or event in more than one way. That’s why people often use expressions such as “seeing things in a new light” or “seeing things from a different angle” to describe insights. If you look at a brick, you’ll probably think of it as a part of a building or a wall. But you could also think of it in other ways: as a paving stone, a doorstop, a paperweight, or a walnut cracker. In fact, cognitive psychologists sometimes use the “brick test” as a way to measure creativity: The more frequently you can shift your perspective, the more uses you will be able to think of for a common object such as a brick, and thus the more creative you are considered to be.
According to the Gestalt psychologists, when you get stuck while trying to solve a problem it’s often because you are thinking about the problem in the wrong way. Just as a simple visual scene such as a Necker cube can be radically reinterpreted in an instant, so can a complex problem be “restructured,” yielding an aha moment about the solution. An object that was previously used for one purpose can now be thought of as a tool to perform some other kind of task; a threat can now be regarded as an opportunity; a relationship with another person can be redefined from competitor to collaborator.
Before Orville and Wilbur Wright’s invention of the airplane, the established conception of how powered flight would work was that propellers would produce horizontal thrust by cutting through the air like blades while wings with curved surfaces would provide the airplane with the necessary upward lift. The Wrights had the mental flexibility to shed the old way of thinking about propellers as blades and reimagine them as wings gliding through the air. When they redesigned their propeller blades to give them a curved, wing-like shape—a design feature still used in modern airplanes—the propellers produced more horizontal thrust. This reinterpretation of propellers as rotating wings helped to make powered flight possible.
Insight Is Creative
People often use the terms “insight” and “creativity” interchangeably. Cognitive psychologists, with their penchant for precision, generally consider insight to be a special form of creativity. We’ll go a step further and propose that insight is a part of creativity’s core.
But then what is creativity? Psychologists often explain it as the ability to generate ideas that are both novel and useful. Though researchers commonly use this definition, we believe that it’s inadequate. Creative things do tend to be novel and useful, but what’s novel to one person may be reinventing the wheel to someone else. Usefulness is also in the eye of the beholder: An iPhone may be useful to a Manhattan lawyer but would likely be useless to a member of an Amazonian tribe. Moreover, even a truly useless creation can be creative. They’re called “brilliant failures.”
In the face of a lack of consensus about how to define creativity, one suggestion is to simply not bother defining it—at least not yet. The idea is that everyone intuitively recognizes creativity when he or she sees it and that ongoing research will eventually give birth to a more effective definition. We would argue that this time has come.
We define creativity as the ability to reinterpret something by breaking it down into its elements and recombining these elements in a surprising way to achieve some goal. This understanding covers virtually all of the phenomena that we typically think of as creative. In the hands of a composer, the notes of a musical scale can be rearranged to form a melody. A successful entrepreneur can take well-known components, products, or services and recombine them to produce something that no one else sells and everyone wants to buy. Even creative products that seem radically novel can be seen as a reorganization of familiar elements of perception and thought. The most creative poems, symphonies, paintings, inventions, business plans, or personal realizations are composed of a common reservoir of words, musical notes, colors, parts, processes, steps, or emotions. The basic elements can be familiar. What makes the product creative is how these elements are recombined—the less obvious the recombination, the more creative it is. After all, if it were obvious, then everyone would be doing it.
When this kind of creative recombination takes place in an instant, it’s an insight. But recombination can also result from the more gradual, conscious process that cognitive psychologists call “analytic” thought. This involves methodically and deliberately considering many possibilities until you find the solution. For example, when you’re playing a game of Scrabble, you must construct words from sets of letters. When you look at the set of letters “A-E-H-I-P-N-Y-P” and suddenly realize that they can form the word “EPIPHANY,” then that would be an insight. When you systematically try out different combinations of the letters until you find the word, that’s analysis.
Analytic thinking is well suited to familiar situations. When you’re trying to form a word in Scrabble or solve an anagram, you know exactly what’s available to you, namely, the letters; and you know exactly what you are allowed to do, that is, rearrange them. These things are givens, and if you do enough rearranging, you’ll eventually find combinations that make words. Analytic thought is an effective way to deal with such clear-cut problems, but it’s less helpful for problems that are too complicated for you to calculate all the permutations or for which it’s not entirely clear what you have to work with. For example, if your goal is to be a better parent, find a more rewarding career, or come up with a new idea for a start-up company, then analysis alone may not get you very far. These problems are too fuzzy and complicated for you to methodically evaluate all the possibilities. Moreover, it probably isn’t clear what all the tools are that could help you achieve such goals. When you tackle these kinds of problems, insight shines.
Creative insight is not an exotic type of thought reserved for the few. In fact, it’s one of the few abilities that define our species. Animals can to varying degrees do most of the things that humans do—they can see, move, pay attention, and remember. However, except for a few limited and arguable counterexamples, only humans—most humans—have insights. It’s a basic human ability.
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