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That Aha! Moment Takes Preparation

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April 18, 2006 | by Pat Vaughan Tremmel

EVANSTON, Ill.  --- Psychologists have been interested for more than a century in learning what cognitive processes are involved in “Aha!” moments  -- those moments of clarity when the solution to a vexing problem falls into place with a sudden insight.

Past research suggests that some people are better at solving difficult problems with insight or creatively, rather than methodically, and that different mental operations are involved. But the processes underlying such differences have remained obscure.

A new study by researchers at Drexel and Northwestern universities uses modern imaging techniques to begin to identify those differences and reveals that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve it with or without an insight. These cognitive patterns are likely linked to distinct types of mental preparation, the study shows.

Drexel Professor John Kounios, Northwestern Associate Professor Mark Jung-Beeman and their research team report their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Previous research by this team demonstrated that the brain functions differently when a person arrives at “Aha!” solutions, compared to methodical solutions. The current study reveals that the distinct patterns of brain activity leading to “Aha!” moments of insight begin much earlier than the time a problem is solved.

The research suggests that people can mentally prepare to have an “Aha!” solution even before a problem is presented. As people prepare for problems that they solve with insight, their pattern of brain activity suggests that they are focusing attention inwardly, are ready to switch to new trains of thought and perhaps are actively silencing irrelevant thoughts.  

The findings show that people can mentally prepare to solve problems with different thinking styles, which can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity. The study may eventually lead to an understanding of how to put people in the optimal “frame of mind” to deal with particular types of problems.

The research team’s previous study revealed that just prior to an “Aha!” solution, after a person has been working on solving a problem, the brain momentarily reduces visual inputs, with an effect similar to shutting one’s eyes or looking away to facilitate the emergence into consciousness of the solution. 

Extending those findings, the new study suggests that mental preparation involving inward focus of attention promotes insight even prior to the presentation of a problem. That suggests that how a person is thinking before problem solving begins may be just as important as the kind of thinking involved in reaching the solution, and perhaps even determines whether the solution will be derived with a sudden insight.

Participants in the new study were presented with a series of word puzzles. Each problem consisted of three words, for example, tank, hill and secret. Participants had to think of a single word that could form a compound or common phrase with each of the three words. Sometimes problems were solved with a sudden flash of insight -- the sudden solution seemed obviously correct. Other times problems were solved more methodically, with the problem solvers perhaps “trying out” possible solutions until they hit on the correct one. In this case the solution was “top,” which could be used to form tank top, hilltop and top secret.

In two parallel experiments, the researchers focused on neural activity that occurred during the period just before each problem was displayed. Brain activity was monitored either with electroencephalograms (EEG), which provided precise timing information and approximate anatomical information, or with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which gives a more precise location of active brain areas, but with less precise timing.

Yielding highly similar results, the two brain-imaging techniques showed a different pattern of brain activity prior to problems subsequently solved with an “Aha!,” compared to the pattern of brain activity prior to problems solved more methodically.

“It's remarkable how similar the results were across the two experiments, using different methods,” said David E. Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the research. “These results nicely demonstrate that different types of mental preparation are conducive to different types of problem solving.”

Mental preparation that led to insight solutions was generally characterized by increased brain activity in temporal lobe areas associated with conceptual processing and with frontal lobe areas associated with cognitive control or “top-down” processing. 

“Problem solvers could use cognitive control to switch their train of thought when stuck on a problem, or possibly to suppress irrelevant thoughts, such as those related to the previous problem,” Northwestern’s Jung-Beeman said.  

In contrast, preparation that led to more methodical solutions involved increased neural activity in the visual cortex at the back of the brain -- suggesting that preparation for deliberate problem solving simply involved external focus of attention on the video monitor on which the problem would be displayed.

More than a century ago, the great scientist Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors only the prepared mind,” meaning that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen, but are the product of preparation.

“We have begun to understand how the brain prepares for creative insight,” Drexel’s Kounios said. “This will hopefully lead to techniques for facilitating it.”

Psychological Science is published by the Association for Psychological Science (previously known as the American Psychological Society) and is ranked among the top 10 general psychology journals for impact by the Institute for Scientific Information.

For more information, contact John Kounios, Drexel University, at john.kounios@gmail.com, or Mark Jung-Beeman, Northwestern University, at mjungbee@northwestern.edu.