“Scientific American” Outlines How to Find “Aha!” Moment

research shows insight strikes during abstract thought and relaxation

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Creative problem solving is difficult but rewarding. In some instances, realizing the solution to a problem is an even greater prize than applying the solution itself. This week in Wondrium Shorts: How to get your “Aha!” moment.

When looking for a solution, there are two major ways to approach a problem. Some people rely on moments of insight, while others approach the problem from an analytical perspective. Electroencephalography (EEG) studies have even been done that prove that these different techniques result in significantly different patterns in brain activity.

No matter which problem you’re trying to solve, and regardless of which approach you use, you’re going to need the proverbial light bulb to switch on in your head. So how do you get to your own “Eureka!”? In Wondrium’s new course Understanding Your Inner Genius—produced in partnership with Scientific AmericanLaura Helmuth, Scientific American Editor-in-Chief, offers proven tips.


Being told to “think outside the box” may be a cliché phrase, but it has its place in problem-solving. When someone has an “Aha!” moment, Helmuth said, fMRI and EEG readings of their brain activity show spikes in the anterior superior temporal gyrus of the right hemisphere. Researchers believe there are areas in the right hemisphere of the brain that interpret information “more loosely” than the left, leaving that information open to other related concepts. Thus, looking at a problem from a different perspective can help solve it.

“Both hemispheres are working all the time, but parts of your right hemisphere might loosely define a cat as a mammal, making it easy to see how a cat relates to, say, an elephant,” Helmuth said. “Parts of your left hemisphere, however, might describe a cat as a small, carnivorous mammal with soft fur, a short snout, and retractile claws—something very different from an elephant.

“Research has suggested that you can tip the scales toward a looser style of understanding by describing objects or issues in unusual ways.”

Research and Incubate

According to Helmuth, finding novel solutions always requires a bit of research to be done in advance. The exact amount may vary based on the problem that has presented itself, but it stands to reason that many people who are considered to be creative geniuses are experts in their field.

“Once you have immersed yourself in a problem, the best way to come up with a creative solution is to stop consciously thinking about it,” she said. “Research from the University of Amsterdam and the University of Bologna in Italy has demonstrated that sleeping on a problem or stepping away from it and then immersing yourself in an alternate activity can help you unconsciously cultivate creative solutions.”

Helmuth said that in addition to psychological studies done on problem-solving, many ordinary problems offer similar solutions. This, she added, is one of the reasons why people so often claim the answer to a problem came to them in the shower, driving to work, or while otherwise mentally engaged. In fact, one particularly well-known moment of insight involves Archimedes.

“Legend has it that the ancient Greek mathematician had been challenged to figure out whether a crown that King Hiero II of Syracuse had commissioned was made out of solid gold,” Helmuth said. “Archimedes was preparing a bath when he discovered how to measure an object’s volume, and thus its density, after noticing the displacement of water as he climbed into the tub.

“Although the story may be apocryphal, it has gone down in history in part because it illustrates perfectly how insight strikes.”

This article is part of our “Deeper Dive” series where we examine the stories behind our Wondrium Shorts on YouTube.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily