Whose Insight is it Anyway.

We all have brains.

Forgive the mundane. However, let’s re-familiarize with ala Brain Extraordinaire.

There is no instance in our annual innovation reviews or daily social media existence, we miss highlighting the extraordinary prowess of the brain as an information processing system. Our logical mind. We exalt it. “I think, therefore I am”. And things that our rational mind finds fiddly, we ask Siri for it. And when working memory will max out, AlphaGo!

At the same time, most daily problems are not so “linear”. They have no pre-existing, logical or methodical solution. Life is full of these “beyond logic” situations. Such as, what really prompts us to quit job, move city or come up with a good hypothesis. How to even define good. These decisions seemingly simple are no less complex than answering an engineering quandary. Our brain then acts somewhat surreptitiously, without our consciousness.

The Insight Game

We have all had these Aha! moments. Where without searching, answer arrives. Where without analysis, probe rises. The trigger not always so dramatic.

Moreover, the light bulb Aha! moment is linked with several breakthrough discoveries, also with a telling Halo presence. “From cartoons to documentaries, we see depictions of scientists’ eyes suddenly sparkling, a light bulb popping up over their head, and “Eureka!” escaping their lips.” We also like the mystery. It keeps things interesting.

However, can one really think of the theory of relativity in a patent office?

A singer writing a song is creative; the moment she realizes the ending with an unexpected native vocal is insight. Broadly, creativity is a process of how we come up with new ideas. Is this a skill that we are born with? Not really. A short but vital step along the way is insight. Generally, insight combined with analytical prowess culminates into creativity. It is but obvious that a person cannot discover the theory of general relativity in a dream if he is not a physicist and has not done heavy lifting immersion for years.

The real story behind Archimedes’ Eureka.

An Insight into Insight

The increased focus on insight is because insight arrives at a specific moment in time. This allows researchers to isolate it, examine it, and analyze its characteristics. This allows lining processes leading to that moment of synthesis. Again, anything we can measure, we can modify.  Stuck with a problem? Don’t worry, there are ways to get you through.

Aha! moment is defined as a “sudden comprehension or realization that involves a reorganization of the elements of a person’s mental representation of a stimulus, situation or event to yield a nonobvious or nondominant interpretation”. This breakthrough realization can take the form of a solution to a problem, comprehension of a joke or metaphor, or recognition of some aspect about self.

Insight is different from analytic problem-solving. For several reasons, insight is also an interesting phenomenon. A commonly agreed upon attribute is that Aha! moment seems to come out of thin air, with no access to an earlier ongoing stream of conscious thought. Also, more often than not, a sense of being stuck precedes the Aha! moment. Importantly, restructuring and breaking of mental impasse are no longer considered a necessary feature. This aspect allows inclusion of Aha! moment that occurs such as when solution suddenly pops into awareness even when the person is not actively working on solution strategy; like when an answer pops while taking a shower. Finally, the positive burst of emotion or surprise may be usual, but also not a necessary occurrence. 

Interestingly, insight solutions can also be more accurate than analytical ones. A possible explanation relies on the all-or-none nature of Aha!moment , which does not allow the subject to provide intermediate responses. It is also seen that while in the resting state, individual differences exist; individuals who tend to solve by insight deploy attention pattern differently from those who are more analytical.

It is then natural to ask what really happened in Einstein’s brain and in the brains of many other people when they have an Aha! moment.

The Curious case of unwired Light Button

It is well accepted that a unique spark of high gamma activity spikes one-third of a second before we consciously arrive at an answer. Additionally, this flash of gamma waves stems from the brain’s right hemisphere — a known area involved in handling associations and assembling parts of a problem.

Immediately following that gamma spike, the new idea pops into consciousness, which we experience as Aha.  Neocortex lights up like a Christmas tree. The conscious brain is crowned Hero.

Gamma activity indicates a constellation of neurons binding together for the first time to create a new neural network pathway. Basically, this is the creation of a new idea. Alpha activity indicates reduced intake of external sensory input. 

However, and most interestingly, a burst of slower alpha band activity over the right visual cortex is visible about 1.5 second right before that “Aha!” moment. Basically, our brain is quiet.

However, this seemingly “idle” brain is actually more active. High levels of alpha brainwaves enable people to come up with ideas which are further away from obvious or well-known ones. Some people may experience this internal “Aha!” moment as mind wandering; a period when our brain is our very own Solitary Reaper.

As such, a complex yet fascinating picture arises about many facets of insight. But one fact that remains true is that through the multifold layers of spiking gamma waves, sparking alpha waves and shining cortex, we can prepare a space to impregnate more alpha activity and maybe more Aha.

In search of Aha

The thing is: Flashes of insight are not as random as they seem. It is also obvious that we can’t control it. Yet, we can set the stage for increasing its likelihood of occurrence.

Firstly, Timing is crucial. Insight can be facilitated when integration processes activate the representation of a potential solution to a level just below the threshold for consciousness. Thus, hone intuition to sense this sub threshold presence. And at this very time, induce positive mood and laughter. Voila!

Your mental preparation even before you get a problem matters. Neural activity immediately before the presentation of an expected problem predicts whether that problem will be solved by insight or analytically. Such preparation for insight involves inwardly directed attention; preparation for analysis involves outwardly directed attention. It interestingly suggests that being caffeinated may facilitate the analytical part of the creative process but impede the insight-finding part, by honing your focus but dulling your ability to think more diffusely.

Aha! Tip Caffeine also inhibits another mental process that’s necessary for creative thinking: REM sleep.

Obviously, some components of the insight processing rely on same core abilities as analytic processing, such as working memory and fluid vocabulary, so improve on fundamental problem solving. A related exciting question is whether existing knowledge can prevent a person from creative leaps.

It is also seen that dopamine levels in multiple brain areas affect creativity, with an interaction between frontal and striatal dopaminergic pathways. This also points out to individual differences that exist. So, there is really no one-size-fit-all talisman for aiding insight.

Lastly, stop searching. Seriously. In a recent book “Eureka Factor: Aha! Moments, Creative Insight and the Brain,” Beeman proposes insights come when not directly focusing on issues. So, Relax. Allow those weaker associations swim to surface. Remember, high levels of alpha brainwaves? Moreover, forcing thinking of creative ideas can inadvertently stifle it.  Do simple tasks that allow the mind to wander.  This is what highly creative people do every day. Play, run, doodle or dance!

It’s Up&Up

This of course is easier said than done.

Today, as a generation obsessed with productivity, speed and innovation, everyone is eager. We sign up for weekend design thinking workshops, plan our holidays with as much rigor as a SpaceX launch, keep kids productive to T during holidays, have that nth coffee for action. Frankly, doing nothing freaks most of us out. How can you do nothing, such precious life! 

The key is to create balance. Have those Goldilocks Goals. But, know that an overly programmed existence can rebound. Another main aim is simple – Appreciate spontaneity, embrace not doing anything, choose curiosity over intentional solving. Unplan. Stumble Upon. 

No, I am not telling you to follow your heart; that is for the movies. With a scientific background on the marvellous power of our non-conscious processes vested in our ala Brain Extraordinaire, I only hope we learn to allow it the space, for it to thrive. Let rational mind take a back seat, daily.

Maybe Insight finds you from behind. Whose Line is it anyway?

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