For a better experience, click the Compatibility Mode icon above to turn off Compatibility Mode, which is only for viewing older websites.

Q&A with John Kounios: The 'Aha! Moment'

Jonh Kounios

August 13, 2012

Dr. John Kounios has a knack for articulating the science behind those proverbial lightbulb moments that occur when a sudden realization is made.

Kounios, a professor of psychology in the Drexel University College of Arts and Sciences who researches the neural and cognitive bases of semantic information processing, problem solving and creative insight, has been named a finalist to speak at TED2013, a conference devoted to narrative-style discussions about “ideas worth spreading.”

Kounios recently discussed with DrexelNow his nominated TED topic, “The neuroscience behind epiphanies." To watch his full talk and to vote by commenting, click here.

Could you explain what exactly you mean when you reference the "aha! moment”?

An “aha! moment” is a sudden realization that seems to pop into consciousness. This is a form of creativity that cognitive psychologists call “insight.” This is different from “analytic” thought, which is a conscious, methodical working-through [of] a problem until the solution emerges. “Aha! moments” yield a new perspective or a new way of thinking of a problem [that] clarifies the situation and suggests a straightforward answer that seems obviously correct in hindsight. “Aha! moments” are typically striking and exhilarating.

In your talk, you mention that technology can interfere with developing creative insights. How so?

The state of your brain when you encounter a problem helps determine how you go about solving the problem. If your attention is focused inwardly on your own thoughts and ideas, then, when you encounter the problem, you are more likely to be able to solve the problem with a flash of insight. But if your attention is focused outwardly on the world around you, then you are more likely to try to solve the problem analytically. You might think of this as "outsight" rather than "insight."

In the modern world, we are constantly bombarded by emails, text messages, cell phone calls, meetings and the demand to be available 24/7. This imposes the kind of outwardly directed attention that is antithetical to solving a problem insightfully.

What value can non-neuroscientists find in learning the science behind “aha! moments”?

Some problems are best solved analytically, that is, using established methods. These are usually familiar types of problems for which we've already worked out solution strategies. But we can't draw on familiar methods for solving unusual, unfamiliar problems. Often, we get stuck on these because the familiar methods don't work. Solving these kinds of problems involves discarding the familiar strategies—throwing out the book, so to speak—and adopting a new perspective. This typically happens as a sudden insight, an “aha! moment,” that leapfrogs several steps of conscious reasoning.

It's important to be aware of this phenomenon and to learn how to cultivate it because the increasing complexity of modern life has spawned serious economic, ecological and societal problems that have proven difficult to solve using the standard playbook. To increase our chances of solving such problems, we have to be open to the kind of nonlinear thinking that produces insights.