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Those Elusive “Aha!” Moments

| January 17, 2017

by Jim Bruce

Everyone of us, at one time or another, has had “Aha!” moments.  Times when all of a sudden, typically when we are not working on it, the solution to a major issue we are struggling to address floats, as if by magic, through our minds.  Aha!
Cognitive neuroscience provides some insight into what is actually going on.  According to David Rock and Josh Davis, “People commonly report that they make the best decisions not while actively trying to make a choice but rather when taking a shower, knitting, or working out.  This is because ‘Aha!’ moments, that spark brilliant, unexpected solutions tend to crop up when our minds are quiet and our consciousness is at rest.”  This is often the only way to solve truly complex problems that are too big for our conscious mind to process.
Writer Bruce Grierson, commenting on the work of Marcus Raichle, a Washington University in St. Louis neuroscientist, noted that during these times the prefrontal cortex is relatively idle, while in the rest of the brain there is “essentially a party going on in the dark.”  Raichle says that the rest of the brain is “crackling with interconnectivity, and burning perhaps 20 times the metabolic resources of the ‘conscious’ brain.  The brain’s resting-state circuitry (which is turned-on, paradoxically, when you stop thinking and just veg out) is thus very likely the best place to park a problem, for it employs the best, wisest, and most (though not necessarily fastest-working) mechanics.”
So, how might you intentionally make use of this capability of your brain to have more “Aha!” moments?  Rock and Davis suggest a four-step process to help you notice new activations in your brain which are the source of these creative moments.
1.  Notice quiet signals – You don’t meet many people today whose calendars have a lot of free time.  Calendars are typically packed with meetings, with time allotted to project work, with interruptions, with obligations for family, etc.  There is not much time for you to enjoy peace and quiet.  But, silence and solitude are crucial for nurturing these precious “Aha!” moments.  To this point, research has demonstrated that smarter decisions are made after just 15 minutes of undisturbed time meditating.  So, no matter how busy you are, take time to be alone.  Perhaps after meetings, you schedule a short break, close your door, and reflect.  Perhaps you take a walk, preferably outside.  The key is to find some quiet!  Like everything else, it will not happen if you don’t make it a priority.
2.  Look inward – Once you have found a quiet place, turn your focus onto your inner thoughts.  Ignore all that’s going on around you.  (Before you enter your “quiet zone,” silence your phone, don’t sit where there is a “screen” in view, and try to avoid external stimuli of all kinds.)  This is a time to zone-out.  Mark Jung-Beeman has observed that just before the “Aha!” moment, “there are brain-waves in the alpha range in the brain’s visual cortex.  These alpha waves indicate that external information is reduced. … It’s like the brain’s ‘idle’ moment.” 
Focusing internally goes with mind wandering which is another ingredient in insight generation.  Thomas Edison would routinely let his mind wander in hopes of capturing any floating bits of innovative thought.  It’s reported that he would write these thoughts down believing that they were creative.  Research has demonstrated that mind wandering is crucial for triggering insights.
3.  Take a positive approach – Anything that creates anxiety – meeting a major project deadline, making an important decision, having a difficult conversation, etc. – is the major enemy of creative insight.  Anxiety creates “noise,” drowning out space for insight.  In contrast, research has shown that feeling even slightly happy, in contrast to being anxious, is conducive to “Aha!” moments and insightful problem solving.  People notice a wider range of information when they feel happy than when they feel concerned.  Research has shown that a good mood alters the brain’s activity and promotes an insight-friendly neural environment.
If you feel grumpy while tackling that difficult, complex situation, do something that will change your mood, lift your spirits.  Spend time with a friend, read a book, take a nap.  Any one of these may just spark that elusive solution.
4.  Use less effort – Insights most often happen when you are not actively making an effort;  stepping away from the issue is key for quality decision-making.  Stepping away may allow you to unravel your unconscious thought.  As noted earlier, putting your brain in “idle” will enable your brain’s resting-state networks to work unconsciously on the problem at hand. 
So, for more “Aha!” moments take a break;  give your brain a chance to go into idle.  It will increase the chance for insight.  Doing this will necessitate some reconfiguration of your calendar, and that will no doubt be difficult.  Yet, while difficult, it will most likely result in more insights on a regular basis, leading you to deal with those difficult, complex situations in les overall time.
So, take time this week to give this four step process – notice quiet signals, look forward, take a positive approach, and use less energy – a try.  I believe you’ll be surprised at the results.
.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
David Rock and Josh Davis, 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments, October 12, 2016, Harvard Business Review.
Bruce Grierson, Eureka!, March 9, 2015, Psychology Today.
Robert Mankoff, The “AHA!” Moment, The New Yorker, March 4, 2014.