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The Thinker

By Lini S. Kadaba

The Thinker Illustration from Exel Magazine

November 7, 2016

How does a brain scientist known for discovering the neural pathway of sudden, creative insight achieve his own flashes of inspiration? It’s all about getting into the right headspace.

When Drexel Professor of Psychology John Kounios has a problem to solve, he takes a ride in the quiet car on the regional rail line. He leans back in his seat for the 45-minute commute between his home in West Chester and Drexel’s University City Campus. He dons special noise-cancelling headphones, slaps on his sunglasses and closes his eyes. No cellphone ringtones. No chatter of voices. No distractions, not even the rumble of the train nor the scenery streaking past the window.

Then, Kounios lets his thoughts wander.

In this relaxed state where the mind is most open, the affable, 58-year-old with a shock of gray hair meditates and allows associations to flow as he turns thoughts over in his mind.

Often enough, he has what’s called a eureka! or aha! moment, that sudden awareness of a new idea, new perspective or solution.

“I really think the modern lifestyle is not as conducive to this deep creativity that produces really powerful insights,” says Kounios, who also directs the doctoral program in Applied Cognitive and Brain Sciences at Drexel. “We’re too busy, too distracted, too stressed out. We don’t get enough sleep. We’re too tired. It’s hard to get into this creative state.”

Insight is a unique phenomenon within the brain that can be encouraged by creating the right conditions, argues Kounios. In a new book, “The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain” (Random House, 2015), he unpacks his groundbreaking insight research conducted with co-author Mark Beeman, a professor of psychology and neurosciences at Northwestern University.

A decade ago, the scientists identified the “neural signature” of insight through cutting-edge brain-imaging studies, and ever since, the work has generated buzz. Most recently, Kounios was interviewed on WHYY’s “Radio Times” and appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology at Harvard University and author of the book “The Seven Sins of Memory,” calls the scientists pioneers.

“They’ve shown insight is not just an ephemeral thing that happens once in a while,” he says. “It is something you can study. You just need the right paradigm.”

The researchers, he quips, have “obviously had some insights into insight.”

Read more at Exel Magazine