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Neural Epiphanies

kenglander's picture
“No great thing is created suddenly.” –Epictetus

Writers, philosophers, inventors, and artists have all spoken of sudden insights and epiphanies as being creative muses responsible for their greatest works and masterpieces. Isaac Newton, after all, is said to have conceptualized his ideas on gravity when an apple fell from a tree and hit his head. Whether composing a symphony or solving a crossword puzzle, we are constantly generating novel ideas. These insights are often chalked up to bursts of creative genius, but scientists are determined to understand the biochemical mechanisms that produce these seemingly unprompted epiphanies.
We encounter numerous cognitive problems on a daily basis. These problems do not readily present an answer, but rather require a bit of cognitive elbow grease and restructuring. When this mental reshuffling leads to a productive pathway and ultimately a solution, we describe it as an insight or “Aha!” moment (1-5). Sandkühler and Bhattacharya attempt to distinguish the order of neuronal firing during these moments in their EEG study on insight. The researchers identify “four salient features of insightful problem solving,”: a mental impasse, a restructuring of the problem representation, a deeper understanding of the problem, and a suddenness and obviousness of the solution.
Mental impasse refers to the mental roadblock initially encountered when a problem cannot be solved using the original method or when a particular approach impedes the solving process. This may also be affected by over-stimulation of the senses by misdirecting attention (1,2). The second feature, restructuring, is analogous to thinking outside of the box. It is during this time that the person reworks the problem and finds a new representation of the problem. The restructuring leads to the third feature, a deeper understanding of the problem. This newfound awareness ultimately leads to fuller comprehension and the “Aha!” moment. Insights, the fourth and final feature, are the conscious realization that a person has arrived at a solution (1).
While it is convenient to classify these mental processes into neat, qualitative terms, it is more difficult to justify these categorizations on a neuronal basis. Insightful problem solving can occur on the order of tens to hundreds of milliseconds (1). These rapid neuronal pathways also make it difficult for a person to verbalize how they arrived at a solution; participants may state that they cannot describe their thought process or how they managed to transition from the mental impasse to the restructuring step. Instead, they will revert to the ambiguous explanation of the thought being spontaneous or unprompted (1,3).
Bowden and colleagues seek to understand the leap from mental impasse to restructuring by looking at interconnecting neurons between left and right hemispheres. They theorize that initial processing of a problem activates different regions of the brain at different magnitudes such that information of critical importance to solving the problem is activated weakly in comparison to irrelevant information. However, this information eventually becomes integrated during the restructuring step when a person relies on non-dominant representations and relations. This may result from environmental hints or internal cues that subconsciously influence the linkage of the strongly and weakly activated information. When this association is brought into the consciousness we recognize the finding as an insight (3).
Numerous studies (1,3,4) involving basic word tasks were used to examine neural activation and localization during insightful and non-insightful problem solving. In all three cases, three words were presented that could form compound words when combined with one other word (i.e. “French, car, shoe” was presented with the expectation that the participant would say, “horn” (3)). All studies found increased activation of the parieto-occipital brain regions during initial presentation of the problem—classified as the mental impasse stage. An external hint after the mental impasse showed a peak in activity in the right occipito-temporal area of the brain. This hint was intended to act as an environmental stimulus to aid in the transition to restructuring process. Concurrent with previous research, this area is implicated in selective attention (1,2). In other words, the external hint helped to better direct problem solving. The processing of the cue was shown to be concentrated primarily in the right occipito-temporal region of the brain, which is thought to specialize in focusing attention on a particular input.  This redirection of attention caused a greater level of activation in the prefrontal lobe, which is thought to be critical in planning, structuring, and goal-oriented behavior (1,4). Before declaration of solution, more activity is seen in the parieto-occipital regions, which are also thought to be involved in memory retrieval. This may correlate with a person generating a new solution word as the relationship between “french”, “car”, and “shoe”, for example, is seen as having the word “horn” in common. The person must retrieve from their memory the concepts of “French horn”, “car horn,” and “shoe horn” (1,3).
One critique of this word-task-oriented approach is the applicability of the results. The experiments are highly controlled, which strengthens the internal validity of the tests, but compromises external validity. In other words, these studies do not address how complex problem solving occurs in more realistic and demanding situations (6). While less rigorously scientific, some studies have collected qualitative data in hopes of understanding people’s insights about themselves as individuals. In an applied clinical psychological experiment, participants were asked to self-examine and reflect using a type of life coaching in hopes that they would find more insight and better self-understanding (5). The study found that participants who attempted to explain experiences through different senses (including bodily and spiritual interpretations) in diaries, interviews, and questionnaires considered themselves to be more self-aware and identified themselves as having come to more realizations about their personality than participants who did not use these methods.  
While this research is relatively new, the findings have important implications for how we discuss neural processing and the generation of new ideas. In reference to the interconnectivity of boxes and generation of input and output discussed on the Serendip website, we must consider whether or not input can be generated spontaneously. Is it possible that the input that was originally considered spontaneous or unprompted is actually prompted through a series of simultaneously firing interconnected neurons (or small boxes)? Perhaps this “spontaneous” input originated from an initial environmental input, but the pathway was obscured by another, stronger and concurrent response. This concept of non-spontaneous firing advocates for a Gestalt psychology approach in which we must consider how the brain acts holistically rather than tracing individual pathways and assigning particular boxes specific functions.
Future research might examine how insights in different fields such as music and math or art might relate to the word puzzle insights currently being studied. If our thoughts are truly electrochemical in nature, then it might be of interest to see if similar pathways are mirrored in the brains of musicians and scientists. Are the processes that led to an understanding of gravity and the composition of the first sonata grounded in the same basic mechanisms? We are often told that we must work hard to achieve our goals, but to what extent are our brains working overtime to help us attain these ends?  

Works Cited
1.    Sandkühler, S. & Bhattacharya, J. (2008). Deconstructing Insight: EEG Correlates of Insightful Problem Solving. Public Library of Science, 3(1).
2.    WebMD (2004, April 13). Scientists Explain ‘Aha!’ Moments: Brain Activity Differs When Creative Insight Takes Hold. WebMD Health News.
3.    Bowden, E.M., Jung-Beeman, M., Fleck, J., Kounios, J. (2005). New Approaches to Demystifying Insight. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 9(7), 322-328.
4.    Qiu, J., Li, H., Yang, D., Luo, Y., Li, Y., Wu, Z., Zhang, Q. (2008). The Neural Basis of Insight Problem Solving: An Event-Related Potential Study. Brain and Cognition, 68, 100-106.
5.    Longhurst, L. (2006). The ‘Aha’ Moment in Co-Active Coaching and its Effects on Belief and Behavioural Changes. International Joural of Evidence Based Coaching and Mentoring, 4(2), 61.
6.    Luo, J., Knoblich, G., Lin, C. (2009). Neural Correlates of Insight Phenomena.  Neural Correlates of Thinking. Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
7.    Serendip website, Course Notes from 5 February 2009, /exchange/courses/bio202/s09/notes, accessed 22 February 2009.


Paul Grobstein's picture

Aha! and the brain

Interesting. See Making Sense of Understanding: The Three Doors of Serendip for more on this subject, and a game that can help one make one's own observations about it. Yes, a sudden "Aha!" probably represents the appearance in consciousness (the I-function?) of the result of activity that has been going on for some time in the rest of the nervous system.