Researchers Map Brain's Inspiration Point

They looked to the past, and the character who coined the phrase, for an answer. Legend has it that Archimedes was just about to step into his bath when the light went off over his head. He had been ordered by his king, Hiero, to find out if his crown was pure gold without destroying it.

Archimedes noticed that the water rose in his bath as he stepped in, and the insight struck. The displacement of the water was directly related to the volume of whatever was put into the tub, even his foot, so all he had to do was submerge the crown in water to determine its purity.

And, as legend has it, Archimedes was so thrilled he shouted "Eureka," (I have found it) and ran home through the streets of ancient Greece without bothering to put on his toga.

Word Association

The researchers figured that most people know when they've had an insight, so they relied on the participants to point it out.

"We defined it for them," Jung-Beeman says. "The answer comes to you suddenly. You weren't aware you were even thinking of it until the moment that it pops into your mind, and as soon as it does, you just know. It seems obvious."

Each problem consisted of three words. The participants were required to supply another word with a similar meaning, or that could be used to for a complex word, or phrase, with each of the three words. What goes with fence, card and master? Post. How about a little tougher one? Same, tennis, and head. The answer is match.

The idea was to give the participants words that are very distantly related, or not related at all, and see if they could complete the problem. Insight involves pulling together pieces of poorly related information and coming up with a solution.

The subjects solved 59 percent of the problems, and reported having an insight for 56 percent of the correct answers. And significantly, the two imagers recorded the heightened brain activity in the same area of the brain for those problems that were solved with insight, but not for the others.

Making the Connection

Like Archimedes, the participants combined previously known information in a new way, resulting to a solution to a problem.

"This is the nature of many insights," Jung-Beeman says, "the recognition of new connections across existing knowledge."

But, one might ask, so what? Why does any one need to know what part of the brain is involved in solving a problem?

Howard Gardner, professor of education and cognition at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in commenting on the work, noted that it was a key part of trying to "demystify the creative process."

That could come in handy if the process stops working right. Maybe all it will take will be a tweak of that part of the right temporal lobe to get it working right again.

And maybe not. But at least it seems to be a step in the right direction.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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