When the non-obvious becomes obvious - Aha!

Can you remember a moment when the pieces just fell into place? An aha moment of insight is uniquely human.

John Kounios is a professor of psychology at Drexel University who specializes in researching insight. He describes creativity as a brain state and insight generation as a creative intuitional burst. Insight, as defined by experimental psychologists, is a sudden realization—things snap into place and you see things in a new light. It is when we perceive a previous incongruity between various assumptions we hold. It is a kind of subconscious anomaly detection system.

Insight generation is a mechanism the brain has for making the nonobvious obvious. An insight, just like creativity, is emotionally satisfying. Having an insight gives people a buzz. But insight can’t be forced; you can’t control it consciously like other thoughts. Kounios compares insight to cats in that they can be coaxed but don’t usually come when they are called.

Try this exercise: in each case, what word relates all three words together?

night / wrist / stop

sense / courtesy / place

stick / maker / point

fence / card / master

[Answers: watch, common, match, post]

These four questions get progressively harder. How many did you get? How did you solve them? Did you consider a few words that you associate with one of the words then test and cycle through again? Or did the right word just pop into your head?

This exercise is called the Remote Associates Test (RAT). It was developed by professor Sarnoff Mednick and Martha Mednick in 1962 and has since been considered a valid measure of creativity. RAT questions vary in difficulty and most people can only solve a few of the hardest. People tend to solve RAT questions either analytically or intuitively. It is the intuitive solution that indirectly measures convergent creative thinking. It is valid as a measure because of how the brain stores words.

Cognitive neuroscientist Christine Chiarello conducted studies showing that the brain stores words in two different ways and in two different places. The left hemisphere of the brain stores words in focused and discriminating ways while the right hemisphere stores words in a looser, fuzzier way.

Chiarello found that when a word is presented to the left hemisphere (by presenting words to the right of your eye gaze because of the way the nerves cross over), the meaning of that word is activated along with a few closely related words. For example, the word “money” might strongly energize “buy” or “spend” in the left hemisphere. Meanwhile, on the right side of your brain, “money” may activate a larger number of weaker associations, such as “belt” or “hungry.” It is these right hemisphere associations that find alternative explanations—where an unconscious and weak association is allowed to surface as an insight.

Insight has a distinct neurological signal. From an initial resting state (akin to a car idling in park), the brain moves to what Kounios calls “sensory gating,” where the brain inhibits information from the visual cortex, reducing distractions and allowing less dominant pathways to momentarily shine. The implication is that the brain is working on detecting weak signals and needs to minimize distractions, allowing your attention to find a new idea and dump it to consciousness.

Kounios reminds us that insight isn’t analysis with an emotional flourish at the end. As a neurologically distinct process, there are strategies for making insights, ideas, and creativity more likely. Aha’s are also deeply emotionally satisfying and give people a real sense of contributing something new and non-obvious.

Great Human Strength: We can have great leaps of creativity when we link loose associations that were previously unlinked and gain new perspectives on existing problems or opportunities.

Great Human Weakness: If we are under stress, or if our attention is narrow or diverted, our brains are less likely to be in a creative state.

Machine Opportunity: Designs that allow us to make loose associations and have more insight, including designs that take us away from technology or the problems we’ve been working on.

Machine Threat: Designs that never let us step-back and take a break.