We've all had those moments, from time to time, when the solution to a complex problem suddenly strikes out of thin air, providing an insight into something we've never understood before.
Cognitive scientists call it the "Aha!" experience. Or the "Eureka!" moment. You know you've had it because a mythical lightning bolt comes out of the sky, or a light goes off over your head, or you just feel euphoric.
Until now, many scientists had believed there's no fundamental difference between that Aha experience and any other cognitive process. But scientists at two universities, using some of the most valuable tools in their field, had found evidence that the moment when insight strikes is very different indeed.
Two different brain imaging techniques have revealed that a specific area of the brain "lights up" when the Aha moment arrives, according to cognitive neuroscientists Mark Jung-Beeman and Edward Bowden of Northwestern University and John Kounios of Drexel University. They reported their findings in the April 13th edition of PloS Biology, an online journal that is available free through the Public Library of Science.
"We believe this is the first research showing that distinct computational and neural mechanisms lead to these breakthrough moments," says Jung-Beeman. "This was the first real crack at it (understanding how insight occurs) in terms of looking at the brain."
Areas of Concentration
Participants in the study grappled with 144 simple problems, some of which required insight, and some of which could be solved without the need for a lightning bolt.
The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, which allowed them to determine which parts of the brain were active, in the first of two experiments. Part of the brain "lit up" when the participants experienced Aha, but not when they didn't. The increased activity was observed in part of the right temporal lobe (the anterior superior temporal gyrus.)
The researchers were concentrating on that area because previous studies have linked it to complex language skills "when you need to tie together things that are distantly related," Jung-Beeman says. "That's exactly what an insight is. It's tying together information that people already know, but they don't recognize how they are related until that key moment."
That result was reinforced in the second experiment when an electroencephalogram (EEG) detected high frequency brain waves, normally associated with complex cognitive processing, in the same area of the brain.
The results show that some form of different neural activity is taking place during insight, but that's not likely to be the entire story, according to the researchers. This is a very new field, and it has eluded researchers for many years, so there are probably many other things going on in addition to one area of the brain lighting up.
But it's a strong start, according to other scientists who have looked at the work. Philip Johnson-Laird, professor of psychology at Princeton University, describes it as "one of the most original studies of insight that I have ever seen."
One of the problems confronting researchers has been pretty basic. How do you know when you've had a Eureka moment?