Everyone’s had an idea just pop into their head, seemingly out of the blue. Ever wonder how that happens? Scientists are putting on their thinking caps to figure it out. Dan Steinberg, 18, is a study volunteer in a research project about insight.

“That’s this flash of inspiration when we’re trying to solve a problem, and you just don’t know the solution, you have no idea, you feel you’re stuck in a mental rut and then bang, the solution just pops into your head, seemingly from nowhere,” John Kounios Ph.D. said. But original ideas come from somewhere, the brain.

Insight is the term used to describe a sudden, unexpected discovery, realization or understanding of a concept or problem. The first description of the phenomenon is attributed to Archimedes who shouted, “Eureka!” when he suddenly understood how to calculate density of an object by measuring water displacement. (According to legend, Archimedes had been taking a bath when the insightful solution came into his mind. He was so excited, he jumped out of the water and ran down the streets without stopping to dress.)

Insight differs from traditional problem solving. The most striking aspect of insight is the feeling of “eureka!” or “aha!” that accompanies the answer. Traditional problem solving involves a series of definable steps to gain the answer. With insight, a person has tried to come up with a solution for some time, and the problem or concept is deemed unsolvable. The answer suddenly appears out of thin air – often when a person is not even thinking about the problem.

Studying the Nature of Insight
The process of attaining insight is unknown because a person who experiences insight can’t tell how the answer was obtained (it just comes to them). Since insight can be an important way to solve a problem, it may be helpful to try to understand the brain processes associated with insight. Eventually, that information may be helpful in developing educational materials that instill insightful thinking as an additional way to learn and solve problems.

Researchers at Drexel and Northwestern Universities used brain scans to monitor how the brain works during insightful thinking. In one experiment, subjects were given a string of related words and asked to come up with a fourth related word (like pine, crab, sauce – answer: apple). During the test, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to monitor brain activity. Subjects were asked to respond whether the answer came to them through insight or some type of problem solving process. In a second experiment, new participants were given the same type of problem-solving test. This time, investigators used EEG recording to monitor brain wave activity.

The researchers found insight was associated with an increase in neural activity in an area of the right temporal lobe of the brain, called the anterior superior temporal gyrus. In addition, about 0.3 seconds before the moment of insight, participants experienced a burst of high-frequency electrical activity in the right half of the brain. That activity may indicate the “appearance” of the solution in the brain.

More work needs to be done; however, researchers may one day be able to develop methods that enhance or facilitate insight and increase problem-solving abilities. It may also be useful when traditional problem solving methods don’t help.

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