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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

The 'AHA' Moment -> Eureka!!

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

Any brain function that has the name Eureka must be very special. In reality we all experience these moments. They normally come after much hand-ringing and frustration trying to solve a problem. Then in a flash you have your answer.

Linear Thinking/Conscious Memory

We generally think and problem solve in a linear manner, using our working memory. For as remarkable as our brain is, our working memory can be a bottleneck in processing. It is vulnerable to distraction and is very limited in capacity. Working memory can max out by simply doing multiplication with four numbers. Let’s take this to another level – when we are trying to solve a linear problem we are using our conscious memory. Next, take into consideration the complex tasks our brain performs everyday – for example – what goes on in the brain to keep us standing up? The basal ganglia must perform complex calculations to maintain the right force on the various muscle groups to allow us to stand. We are never aware of these processes because they are on a non-conscious level. They are considered non-conscious because it is automatic and below our level of awareness. Our non-conscious resources to process information are tremendous. An analogy of this comparison, as stated by David Rock (the ‘aha’ moment, 2011): “Relatively speaking, if you think of your conscious processing capacity as the coins in your pocket, then your non-conscious processing capacity is the entire US economy by comparison.”

Now think about everyday life. Are your problems as simple as multiplying a couple of numbers? Or, are they difficult like trying to figure out how to make your product marketable in a down economy? It doesn’t look like working memory has the capacity to be up to that task. Real world problems are non-linear. Even a simple answer is usually not within our working memory’s reach.

With the constraints on working memory it appears that no one solves complex problems at will. The answers just arrive – in the morning, during the night, taking a shower, or doing something pleasant. What strikes me with this list is that the brain will give you an answer when it is at rest. Even that observation is simplistic however. Research into this phenomenon demonstrates that goal-related thinking (thinking related to solving a specific problem) is not only determined by the goals or tasks but individual differences in resting brain state activity also influences the thinking strategy (Kristjasson, 2014). Conclusions: “genetics and life experiences play a role in how each person’s brains rest and subsequently approaches problem solving” (Kristjansson, 2014).

The ‘AHA’ Moment

We understand through research that the ‘aha’ moment appears to be individually attained. However, insight can be viewed as a two phase process.

· First phase of this experience involves the problem solver to be stuck even though they feel they have explored all possible solutions.

· Second phase – suddenly and unexpectedly, after stepping away from fixating on the problem or re-evaluating the problem – an answer is retrieved.

There is some research to support the idea that our insight problems arise from our fixation on the inappropriate solutions of the problem content. Therefore, we can’t get out of our own conscious way of thinking. Solving insight problems require ‘thinking outside the box’. When you break away from this perspective – you allow the solution to emerge as transparent and obvious.

Now that you understand how you experience an ‘aha’ moment, how do you use neuroscience to increase insights?

Here are some guidelines and some tips for increasing insights:

· Quiet:

As mentioned earlier, an insight might be experiential memories – long-forgotten memories. These memories do not have a lot of neurons holding them together. Their signal is below our everyday baseline. Conscious thought likes to determine where we will eat lunch, and this involves millions of neurons speaking to each other. An insight might have a few ten thousand of neurons communicating to each other. These notice signals are just so much lower than everyday conscious thought and cannot be heard. We finally notice these signals when our brains are not so busy. A quiet mind allows insights.

AHA tip: No matter how busy you are, do your best to take breaks between meetings and find some time alone. (Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016)

· Inward looking:

Instead of focusing on the external environment try to focus on your inner thoughts and ignore what is going on around you.. People often have insights when they are ‘mind-wandering’. This is a form of day-dreaming – we are not following our external problems.

AHA tip: To stimulate optimal daydreaming conditions, don’t over-schedule your days. Allow some downtime on a regular basis. (Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016)

· Take a Positive Approach:

A lot of research has demonstrated that being slightly happy versus being slightly anxious helps people solve more problems and be more creative. When you are happy you are more apt to view a wider range of information as opposed to those who are anxious and are more tunnel-visioned.

A brain state required for insight is feeling more open, curious, and interested in something.

AHA tip: If you are feeling grumpy when tackling a complex decision, do something to lift your spirits. Take a daily nap to feel your best. (Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016)

· Use Less Effort:

If you want to have an insight – stop thinking about the problem. This might seem counter-intuitive but when we are stuck – we constantly go over a small set of actions. In repeating the process we prime the brain to only see these solutions – even if they are not viable. It then becomes more difficult to think of new ideas.

Remember that our own non-conscious processing resources are much larger than our conscious ones.

(Rock,D. 2011)

AHA tip: Remember to take a break from any decision-making process. Once you are taking it – focus on something else. (Harvard Business Review, October 12, 2016)

Time to relax – the more anxious you are the less likely you will have insights. When we have a project, or problem, we gather information or put pressure on ourselves. In any situation that is complex and demands insight – it is necessary to quiet the noise in people’s heads and create a space for people to reflect. In a work environment this means – reducing social threat, increase certainty, and finding ways to quiet the brain. Exercise can quiet the brain. When I have blocks, I take a walk and just let thoughts come through. I am always far more creative after a walk.

The bottom line of the ‘aha’ moment is this: Relax, Let go, Let new insights emerge. Eureka!!


Eureka effect. Retrieved July 29, 2015 from

Kristjanssan,S. (2014). The neuroscience of creativity and an aha moment. Retrieved January 26, 2015 from https://www,

Rock,D. (Feb.2011). the ‘aha’ moment. Retrieved November, 2014 from

Rock,D. & Davis,J. (October 12, 2016). 4 steps to having more ‘aha’ moments. Retrieved December 12, 2016 from

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