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Leadership

What Happens To Your Brain When You're Having A Brilliant Idea

When a lightbulb suddenly goes off in your mind, what process led to that "aha!" moment?

[Photo: Flickr user Daniele Lisi]

French post-Impressionist artist Paul Gauguin famously once said, "I shut my eyes in order to see," meaning he shut out the rest of the world to come up with great ideas.

More than a century later, scientists are able to prove Gauguin was onto something.

In the 1990s, cognitive scientists John Kounios and Mark Beeman started studying the insightful moment when you’re suddenly able to see things differently, also known as the "aha!" or eureka moment.

This moment occurs when you go from being stuck on a problem to having the ability to reinterpret a "stimulus, situation, or event to produce a nonobvious, nondominant interpretation."

Through their extensive research, Kounios, a professor of psychology at Drexel University, and Beeman, of Northwestern, found that milliseconds before epiphanies, the activity in the brain’s visual area basically shuts down. That’s the moment right before the solution hits you. Kounios calls this moment a "brain blink," which is when your brain turns inward just before the "aha!"

A simple example to illustrate this, Kounios tells Fast Company, is when you ask someone a tough question and they look away or down so they can think of the solution. In that moment, their brain is momentarily reducing visual input.

In the lab, Kounios and Beeman, authors of the upcoming book The Eureka Factor, used puzzles and problems to study brain activity. They found that right before the problem is presented, activity in the visual part of an analytical person’s brain would amp up to take in as much information as possible. On the other hand, the visual cortex would shut down for those who don’t solve problems in a methodical way, which allows them to block out the environment, look inward, and "find and retrieve subconscious ideas," says Kounios.

The Visual Paradox

While more creative people shut down visual information before their "aha!" moment, these people tend to take in more visuals compared to others on a daily basis. Kounios says when these people walk down the street, they tend to study others, take in information, and may seem very scattered about their own agenda. However, the information they take in and synthesis may be a product of unconscious processing for years before ideas emerge. Those who are more analytical are more focused with their attention. When they walk down the street, they are focused on where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. They tend not to stray into different areas of thoughts.

Research on the "aha!" moment began more than a century ago, but it wasn’t until neuroimaging, which shows where cognitive change is happening, and electrophysiological techniques, which shows when cognitive change is happening, were scientists able to see what happens when the brain goes from a state where there’s no idea to a flow of creative insights.

Before brain imaging was readily available, researchers believed that the mental process was a gradual change, says Kounios. Your brain is always working, acquiring information that you can brew or incubate for years, but the change right before all that information pops into awareness isn’t gradual. It’s a burst of activity that can happen at any time and there’s nothing that you can do to force or coax it, he explains.

The Role Of Sleep And Mood

What you can do is be receptive and expose yourself to a lot of insight triggers. Also, positive moods tend to promote eureka moments. On the contrary, anxiety will promote analytical thoughts.

Lastly, Kounios advises to people who want epiphanies to get more sleep.

"There’s a process of memory consolidation that happens when you sleep," he says. "These memories are transformed … they bring out hidden details or non-obvious connections between ideas. Getting lots of sleep leads to insights."

If all else fails, simply follow Gauguin’s process and look inward instead of outward to come up with your next best ideas.

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