The Eureka Factor

Brainstorm: Researcher John Kounios is shedding light on what goes on in the brain when a flash of insight hits.
Jeff Fusco Photography

This is how one of the pioneers in understanding the “aha! phenomenon” — those flashes of insight about a problem — carves out a creative, idea-inducing space for himself. 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. No chattering passengers. To further isolate himself, the affable professor of psychology at Drexel University puts on his noise-canceling Bose headphones, slaps on his sunglasses, and closes his eyes. No distractions, not even the rumble of the train nor the scenery streaking past the window.

Then, he thinks.

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.

After all, a creative state of mind has led to advances in cancer research, remarkable melodies, even the first barcode scanner. Insights make differences in smaller ways too, like discovering an inventive take on Sunday dinner or figuring out that New York Times crossword puzzle clue.

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.”

More than a century ago, composer Gustav Mahler retreated to remote cottages in Austria to construct some of his greatest symphonies. Alone, he connected with nature, enjoyed the peace and quiet, and concentrated on the musical ideas playing out in his mind. Solitude was so critical to his process that at Lake Attersee, where he wrote his second and third symphonies, organ grinders were paid to stay away and cowbells were muffled. “Isolation allowed him to sink into this creative state,” Kounios says of the favored composer.

Cognitive psychologists have long debated the definition of creativity. It is hard to pinpoint — one of those I-know-it-when-I-see-it concepts. Commonly, though, scientists describe it as the ability to generate an idea or product that is both novel and useful. Its relation — insight — is a vital ingredient to many of mankind’s greatest, most sublime discoveries.

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.

Sometimes many little intuitions lead to the big Eureka! Cancer surgeon and researcher Judah Folkman is known for developing a new field of study: angiogenesis. It was a series of insights over decades that led him to understand the role of blood vessels in cancer.

As early as 1895, surgeons puzzled over a curious aspect of the disease. Removal of the primary tumor caused small metastatic tumors to suddenly grow out of control. In 1960, Folkman made a chance observation that cancer cells devoid of blood vessels failed to grow, a radical concept at the time, and one many other researchers refused to accept. But it was a Rosh Hashanah service many years later that provided the space for his ultimate epiphany.

In 1989, Folkman was sitting in the back row of Boston’s Temple Israel and listening to prayers. Out of nowhere, he had an insight that “explained everything.” Other research had shown that tumors release chemicals that either spur or inhibit blood vessel growth toward them. At that moment in synagogue, Folkman realized that when the balance favors chemicals that inhibit vessel growth, the tumor is stunted and unable to enlarge beyond a millimeter. His aha! explained why the removal of a large, primary tumor — and the source of chemicals that restrain blood-vessel growth — can spark metastases elsewhere in the body.

Folkman persisted because his gut, or rather his brain, told him he was on to something. That type of intuition, researchers say, is the brain’s way of signaling that an insight is on its way.

A decade ago, Kounios and his colleague and co-author Mark Beeman, a professor of psychology and neurosciences at Northwestern University, discovered the “neural signature” of sudden insight — an area the two psychologists blazed with novel brain-imaging studies that continue to attract buzz. “Things like creativity … are difficult to study from a scientific perspective,” says Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book The Seven Sins of Memory. “Ultimately, if we’re going to have a full understanding of these phenomena, we need to know what role the brain plays.”

Kounios and Beeman’s approach was “pioneering … in this field,” Schacter says. “They’ve shown insight … is something you can study. You just need the right paradigm.”
The researchers “have obviously had some insights into insight,” he quips.

In his spare lab dominated by a few computer terminals, Kounios and his graduate students explore the complex workings of the creative mind with the simplest of tools: EEGs and word puzzles.

Two Styrofoam head models — playfully nicknamed Aristoteles and Bartholomew — store the lab’s two elastic EEG caps equipped with red, yellow, and green electrodes.
Last summer, doctoral student Monica Truelove-Hill volunteered to demonstrate a typical insight study. The electrode-laden cap was positioned on her cranium and connected to a signal amplifier by long, thick cords. Next, each electrode, including reference nodes behind her ears, was painstakingly filled with conducting gel that would ferry a small voltage from the scalp to the electrode.

Then, Truelove-Hill studied a series of anagrams on the monitor. For example, she saw the letters F-R-E-E and came up with reef. Or she saw E-N-D-O and found done. After each try, she noted whether she arrived at the solution through insightful thought — that is, a sudden, unexpected answer — or through analytical thought, which requires methodically trying different options. Reef, she said, resulted from trying different combinations of the letters, but done just came to her.

All the while, her brain waves rose and fell on a nearby computer screen, looking like peaks and valleys on a mountain range. Later, the researchers scanned the output for signals that stood out from the general noise of the working brain.

“It’s like panning for gold,” says Kounios, who directs Drexel’s doctoral program in applied cognitive and brain sciences. “You get rid of the junk and then you find that nugget.”

Skeptics have long argued that aha! moments are nothing special — just emotional reactions to otherwise deliberate, analytical thoughts.

When Kounios and Beeman met as researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in late 2000, they discussed how insights, accompanied by a rush of excitement, even joy, feel different from analytical thoughts. They set out to objectively study the processes. “When an idea pops into awareness, it seems to come from nowhere,” Kounios says. “But it’s not coming from nowhere. There are events in the brain that lead up to that aha! moment.”

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.

Each technology has a sweet spot. EEG is king of when things are happening in the brain, accurate to within milliseconds. But it’s not so great with where. That falls to fMRI, which can produce “exquisitely detailed maps” of where a process is occurring in the brain. Its flaw is pinpointing when precisely.

“We saw that it was a powerful combination,” Beeman says. Put together, the data would reveal a clearer picture of what happens in the geography of the brain at the precise moment of an insight.

The next challenge was to design an experiment to illuminate that instant when a person solves a problem with a sudden idea. After all, Kounios and Beeman couldn’t follow subjects around 24/7 hoping for epiphanies.

Typically, several steps lead to an insight. You grapple with a problem (known as immersion), then hit an impasse, then experience a diversion or break from the problem, and finally, voilà! A solution is at hand.

Kounios and Beeman look at creativity as the ability to take an idea, process, or object, break it down into its parts, and reinterpret those elements in a surprising, aha! way to achieve some goal. They place less emphasis on an idea’s novelty or usefulness. “What’s novel to one person may not be novel to another,” Kounios says. “Additionally, a new idea could be very creative but end up not working. In that case, it’s still creative but isn’t useful. And are works of art really ‘useful’?”

In Kounios and Beeman’s view, composers rearrange notes to make music. Inventors rearrange machine parts to create the latest gadget. And so on. When the parts come together in a non-obvious way instantaneously, it’s an insight. When it takes trial and error, it’s a product of analytical thought.

Think of a game of Words with Friends. Sometimes a seven-letter bingo just pops out, and other times a strong word demands trying out numerous combinations until the right one is hit upon.

In the lab, Kounios and Beeman turned to word-association puzzles popular in cognitive science experiments. For example, take pine, crab, and sauce. Then figure out a common word that makes a familiar compound or phrase with each. (Spoiler alert: apple.) These puzzles can be solved either with solutions that pop into the mind suddenly or through a process of elimination.

Each researcher did the experiment in his own lab with a set of subjects and analyzed the data. When they traded brain scans and overlaid the images, what they saw was astounding in many ways. “You couldn’t find a more perfect match,” Beeman says.

Here’s what they saw: At the moment of insight, high-frequency EEG activity known as gamma waves occurred above the right ear. Gamma waves represent cognitive processes that link together different pieces of information. The fMRI showed a corresponding increase in blood flow in the anterior superior temporal gyrus, the part of the brain’s right temporal lobe involved in making connections between distantly related ideas (think jokes or metaphors), as Beeman suspected.
And the kicker? This activity was not present in analytical solutions to the word problems.

They had discovered the pathway in the brain triggered during an aha! moment: The right temporal lobe, located just above the right ear, lights up when a flash of knowledge occurs.

“By showing that insights have a different neural correlate from analytical thought, that conscious, deliberate, methodical thought, we could show that insight is really different,” Kounios explains. “It is this sudden neural event that occurs right about the time an idea pops into awareness.”

The resulting 2004 article in the journal PLOS Biology — and the attendant media coverage — captured the public’s imagination. The Times of London, for one, proclaimed in its headline the discovery of the brain’s E-spot, E standing for Eureka.

Creative spark: An EEG cap helps researchers identify when and where things are happening in the brain.
Jeff Fusco Photography

By now, most cognitive psychologists agree that insight is distinct from analytical thought. One study showed that a couple of seconds before a puzzle is presented to a subject, the brain engages in different activity, depending upon whether that individual ultimately solves the problem insightfully or analytically. Another documented that even during a resting brain state, when a problem is not actively tackled, distinct areas still light up, pushing subjects toward one type of thought or other.

“Some people have a predilection to tackle problems with insight,” Kounios says. No one, though, is 100 percent one way or the other. Currently, Kounios is proposing a project that looks at people who already have a track record of creative accomplishment and whether they tend to move back and forth between insight and analysis more often than the average Joe.

Going forward, Kounios and Beeman want to explore the influence of genetics on creativity and what other factors, besides mood and anxiety, might play a role.

“It’s a complex story,” Beeman says. “We’re still putting together a lot of the pieces of the puzzle.”

Creative genius is often more celebrated than more mundane toil. But is one way of thinking better than the other? Kounios gives an emphatic no: Every great idea demands an analytical workhorse to make it happen. And the most methodical person will never make significant progress without a dose of spur-of-the-moment creativity.

The problem comes from a modern world that leaves little room to daydream, to let the mind simply wander. “People are continually trying to fill up those types of opportunities with multitasking,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who agrees with Kounios and Beeman’s lament that we live in distracted times.

In his own work, Schooler tracked the creative ideas of physicists and writers during the day. “We found about a third of those ideas happened when they were mind-
wandering, and when they were mind-wandering, the ideas were more insightful,” he says. Mind-wandering, he notes, tends to happen during nondemanding tasks, such as gardening, showering, or doing light housework (offering perhaps additional motivation for a tidy abode).

Kounios and Beeman’s original study also produced a telling surprise: A second before the gamma-wave activity, a burst of alpha waves appeared on the right side of the brain at the back of the head. “Alpha waves mean there’s a restriction of incoming visual information,” Kounios says. He calls it a brain blink.

“We didn’t expect that finding,” he says. Initially, the researchers puzzled over it, until Kounios realized that when someone is asked a difficult question, he often looks away.

Kounios, in fact, did that a couple times during our interview. The brain’s focus on visual information “can hijack thought,” he says. “It can overshadow everything else. By looking at a blank wall, or closing your eyes, or looking down, you cut off that distraction, and that boosts the signal-to-noise ratio of that weakly activated, unconscious idea.”

How else, besides staring at a wall or doing housework, can you encourage creativity? Kounios offers three strategies, based on his and others’ research:

Stay positive. A good mood “has a powerful effect on creativity,” he says. This byproduct of feeling safe may allow for more risky ideas to take root.

Focus inward. A lot of creative people “like to get away from everything,” he says. A shower is a classic example of sensory deprivation; running water is the perfect white noise. Bill Gates takes “think weeks,” where he goes alone to a cabin retreat, reads, and ruminates.

Sleep on it. Besides improving a person’s mood, sleep consolidates memories. “It brings out the non-obvious connections and associations in the details of a memory,” Kounios says.

The good professor can attest to this last one. He was searching for a catchy title for the insight book. One evening, his wife, Yvette, who teaches writing, fell asleep on the couch. “Yvette woke me up in the middle of the night. She said, ‘I had an aha! moment about the title.’”

Her idea: The Eureka Factor. His editor, of course, loved it.

From the Archive: The Nature of Creativity

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” —Albert Einstein, interviewed by George Sylvester Viereck, October 26, 1929

“At a certain crucial stage both poet and scientist are groping in the dark, hardly knowing in what direction their data are tending, till a flash of imagination lights up the pattern for them. We have evidence, in the lives of the great scientific discoverers, how often this flash comes when the mind is asleep or occupied with other matters. But it would not have come, any more than a theme comes to the poet, without a great deal of preliminary work in the sifting and assessing of data and experience.” —C. Day Lewis, “The Making of a Poem,” January 21, 1961

“It is when he is faced with the unknown that man’s imagination springs to the fore, like a fountain gushing up out of a rock.” —Nancy Hale, “The Magic of Creativity,” April 29, 1961