The aha! moments occur when your brain spontaneously reinterprets information to reach a novel, nonobvious conclusion. Creative people have sudden breakthroughs—instances when they are able to recombine information in a new and useful way. Scientists view these flashes of insight as markers of the creative process. And, observing them in the laboratory elucidates what happens in the brain during problem-solving.
The Creative Process
What researchers are finding is that the contemporary science of creativity largely bolsters an almost century-old theory. In 1926, political scientist Graham Wallas defined the creative process as four distinct stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
Since then, scientists have broken some of his stages into substages to reveal distinct cognitive processes. For example, preparation now consists of two parts: one is focused on general learning and the other is focused on skill building.
“These stages really seem to be universal, whether you are a scientist, artist, writer, or musician,” says Harvard University psychologist Shelley Carson, who has interviewed more than 1,000 creative people for her research. And creativity is not restricted to a subset of highly talented artists and thinkers, Carson says.
These innovative people have a distinct style of thinking, and breaking down their approach can allow anyone to recreate the process. Brain research has revealed that we can all get closer to achieving that magical spark of insight with the help of a few simple techniques.
Two Ways to Solve Problems
Roughly speaking, people solve problems in one of two ways: They either tend to rely on moments of insight, or they approach them analytically.
Answering questions with analysis involves finding solutions through deliberate, methodical trial and error, whereas insight is perceived as an abrupt epiphany. Both methods are useful, but insight is typically seen as the best option for ‘out of the box’ solutions.
Monitoring Brain Activity
Kounios and his colleagues monitored the brain activity of 26 study participants using electroencephalography (EEG) while they sat quietly in a room. After recording these electrical signals, the researchers asked the participants to try to solve 180 anagram problems, which involved reorganizing a word, such as west, to form another word, stew. Subjects also reported whether they had used an insightful or analytical approach to solve each problem.
Kounios found that the brain activity of people who used insight differed significantly from that of people who preferred the analytical approach. Before they even began solving problems, most members of the insight group exhibited less activity in the occipital lobe, a region involved in visual processing, compared with the analytical set.
Specifically, the brains in the insight group showed less activity in the so-called alpha wave range, which reflects neural inhibition, and the beta-1 wave range, which is linked with selective visual attention.
In other words, these findings suggest that people who rely on insight tend to experience diffuse visual attention when not actively engaged in a task.
This is a transcript from the video series Understanding Your Inner Genius. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Breaking Thought Habits
In a way, Kounios’s study, along with Carson’s reports from highly creative individuals, suggests that to prime your brain for creativity, you should wander the world with an open mind.
“Gathering a broad base of knowledge is the first stage of the creative process, which usually comes naturally to people through intellectual curiosity,” Carson says.
Another way to break your thought habits is by asking questions such as “How can I do this differently?” and by stepping outside your comfort zone. A poet with writer’s block, for example, might be advised to take up a new hobby, such as scuba diving or dance lessons.
Neuroscientist-turned-artist Greg Dunn discovered an entirely different way to depict the brain when he began studying Sumi-e art, an Asian style of painting. His experimentation with the style’s free-flowing ink led to a simple yet elegant new method for painting neurons.
Yet simply exposing yourself to new things does not seem to be the full story.
Engaging with Thoughts that Arise through New Experiences
According to a study by Sergio Agnoli and his colleagues at the Marconi Institute for Creativity at the University of Bologna in Italy, how you engage thoughts that arise through new experiences is important for facilitating creativity. They found that people who can deliberatively engage in focused mental exploration come up with more original solutions to problems than those who reported little ability to control how their mind wanders.
Therefore, building a solid foundation from which creativity can grow requires both exposing yourself to new experiences and intentionally engaging with the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result.
Common Questions about Flashes of Insight and the Creative Process
In 1926, political scientist Graham Wallas defined the creative process as four distinct stages: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification.
Roughly speaking, people solve problems in one of two ways: They either tend to rely on moments of insight, or they approach them analytically. Answering questions with analysis involves finding solutions through deliberate, methodical trial and error, whereas insight is perceived as an abrupt epiphany.
Building a solid foundation from which creativity can grow requires both exposing yourself to new experiences and intentionally engaging with the thoughts and feelings that arise as a result. A study found that people who can deliberatively engage in focused mental exploration come up with more original solutions to problems than those who report little ability to control how their mind wanders.