That moment of sudden insight: you see how to solve a problem that you’ve been struggling with. Last week on Scientific American‘s website there was a two-page article about research that analyzes what is going on in the brain during that moment. In a description of one of the tests:
Researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London report in the journal PLoS ONE that they monitored action in the brains of 21 volunteers with electroencephalography (EEG) as they tackled verbal problems in an attempt to uncover what goes through the mind—literally—in order to observe what happens in the brain during an “aha!” moment of problem solving.
And they did indeed find some connections between brain activity and problem solving. It turns out that mental blocks while solving a problems were correlated with strong gamma rhythms in brain waves activity in the parietal cortex. Equally interesting was that participants with these strong gamma rhythms were less likely to benefit from hints. As for the “Aha!” moment:
At the end of each trial, subjects reported whether or not they had a strong “Aha!” moment. Interestingly, researchers found that subjects who were aware that they had found a new way to tackle the problem (and so, had consciously restructured their thinking) were less likely to feel as if they’d had eureka moment compared to more clueless candidates.
(I find myself tempted to personalize that last statement: so if I have a sudden insight, which is certainly an exciting moment, it means I’ve actually been less aware of my own thinking than the times I just plod along to the right answer? Not a very satisfying conclusion — I’ll have to find a way to rephrase that for myself.) See “What Are We Thinking When We (Try to) Solve Problems?” for the entire article.