If you’ve experienced the highs and lows of creative thinking, you know that sometimes the creative well is dry… while at other times creativity is free-flowing.
It is during the latter times that people often experience so-called “Aha!” moments — those moments of clarity when the solution to a vexing problem falls into place with a sudden insight and you see connections that previously eluded you.
But why do “Aha!” moments sometimes come easily, and sometimes not at all? A study revealed that patterns of brain activity before people even see a problem predict whether they will solve it with or without such an insight, and these brain activity patterns are likely linked to distinct types of mental preparation.
John Kounios of Drexel University, Mark Jung-Beeman of Northwestern University, and their research team reported their findings in 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 2006 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. Specifically, 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.
These findings are important because they show that people can mentally prepare to solve problems with different thinking styles, and that these different forms of preparation can be identified with specific patterns of brain activity. This 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.
This 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 a person shutting his or her eyes or looking away to facilitate the emergence into consciousness of the solution.
The study extended these findings by suggesting that mental preparation involving inward focus of attention promotes insight even prior to the presentation of a problem. Therefore, it may be that how a person is thinking before problem solving begins is 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, secret), and participants had to think of a single word that could form a compound or common phrase with each of the three words.
People sometimes solve such problems with a sudden flash of insight — the solution suddenly pops into their heads and seems obviously correct — and other times, solve such problems more methodically, perhaps “trying out” possible solutions until they hit on the correct one (in this case, top: tank top, hilltop, top secret).
In two parallel experiments, participants solved these problems while brain activity was monitored either with electroencephalograms (EEG), which provide 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. The researchers focused on neural activity that occurred during the period just before each problem was displayed.
The two brain imaging techniques yielded highly similar results and showed a different pattern of brain activity prior to problems that they subsequently solved with an “Aha!”, compared to the pattern of brain activity prior to problems they solved more methodically.
According to David E Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the research, “It’s remarkable how similar the results were across the two experiments, using different methods, and 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. Jung-Beeman noted that “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.”
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.” By this, he meant that sudden flashes of insight don’t just happen, but are the product of preparation.
According to Kounios, “We have begun to understand how the brain prepares for creative insight. This will hopefully lead to techniques for facilitating it.”
This information was originally published in April 2006