Where Our “Eureka!” Moments Come From

New state-of-the-art research deconstructs the inner workings of "Aha!" moments.

Posted Mar 13, 2019

Mari Carmen G. Dugo/Shutterstock
Source: Mari Carmen G. Dugo/Shutterstock

Carola Salvi is a neuroscience-based researcher at Northwestern University who focuses on deconstructing the specific neural mechanisms that drive creativity and “Insight” problem-solving. Insight is key to having so-called "'Aha!" or "Eureka!" moments. The million-dollar question for Salvi and her colleagues in the Creative Brain Lab is to figure out how ideas are born inside the brain, how these ideas develop in people's minds, and what causes a sudden flash of insight to spring into conscious awareness.

Last month, Salvi and her colleague Edward Bowden published a paper on risk and creativity, “The Relation Between State and Trait Risk Taking and Problem-Solving,” in the journal Psychological Research. This groundbreaking research unearths some fascinating new clues about the inner workings of “Aha!” moments.

In an email, Carola Salvi told me, “There are a couple of interesting findings, first that being in risk scenario decreases creative performance (at least solutions via insight) but also that when under risk females are better problem solvers than men.” Salvi added, “I think the bottom line is that being put in risky situations, (when there is a lot at stake) does not facilitate creativity and makes people particularly analytical. Also, women appear to be better problem solvers under risk. This last result on gender difference was not predicted, so I would love to investigate it further or, trough this out so maybe some other researcher looks at this further. If this turns out to be consistent in other studies, it might make a big difference in the business world.” 

Along with this email, Carola attached a PDF of her risk and creativity paper (Salvi & Bowden, 2019), which is full of insights about the creative process and different styles of problem-solving. As the authors write, “People can solve problems in two main styles: through a methodical analysis, or by a sudden insight (also known as ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ experience). Analytical solutions are achieved primarily with conscious deliberation in a trial-and-error fashion. ‘Aha!’ moments, instead, happen suddenly, often without conscious deliberation and are considered a critical facet of creative cognition.” 

In addition to these fascinating findings about the role that risk plays in problem-solving styles, this paper opened my eyes to some characteristics and traits that come together under the umbrella of a “creative personality type.” According to Salvi and Bowden, “Creative people are often very original, oriented toward novelty seeking, curious and open to new experiences; all characteristics that are promoted by greater risk propensity."

From a metacognitive perspective, as I read Salvi’s recent work on risk and creativity, I was consciously and subconsciously contemplating how to structure this post. Notably, my brain was also trying to connect the dots between lots of ideas about ‘Eureka!’ moments that I've never contemplated before analytically. In a Russian doll kind of way, this research on 'Aha!' moments opened my mind and triggered a series of mini 'Aha!' moments about insightful solutions.

Full disclosure: I wrote this piece from start-to-finish in one sitting during the predawn hours this morning. Before sitting down at my desk to start writing, I self-imposed a deadline of completing this post before sunrise—with enough time leftover to squeeze in a 30-minute HIIT workout—before it’s time to take my 11-year-old daughter to school. By putting a slight amount of pressure on myself to write this quickly before heading to the gym, I knowingly increased the risk of failing as a science-based writer. That said, the time constraint gives me a rush that gets my creative juices going and makes writing this more fun because I have to let go and wing it.

Based on a combination of road-tested life experience and empirical evidence, I know that anytime I can "unclamp" my prefrontal cortex and avoid overthinking as a writer, the words and ideas flow with more superfluidity.

In real time, as I'm rapidly typing these words and ideas, I can’t help but picture myself as a human guinea pig or “Exhibit A” in some experiment at Northwestern’s Creative Brain Lab. At this exact moment, I am hyper-cognizant about "thinking about my thinking." Every time my thinking style and thought process flips from being scientific/analytical to more whimsical/insightful, it feels like a tectonic shift inside my brain. Of course, I don’t want to overthink a post about creativity and awe-inspiring 'Aha!' moments. (See "Why Does Overthinking Sabotage the Creative Process?") So I'm giving this post the light touch and purposely writing in a stream-of-consciousness style.

As a behind-the-scenes look at the creative process and “Exhibit B” of my cognitive state while writing this post: The decision to share a real-time example of my writing process in the paragraph above sprang into my mind suddenly—without an ounce of conscious deliberation—and was touch typed without looking at the keyboard in less than two minutes.

Non Satis Scire: "To Know Is Not Enough" 

For the next section of this post, I just made another spur-of-the-moment decision to shift gears and look at Salvi’s research on risk and creativity through the lens of Hampshire College’s pedagogical philosophy and their Latin motto, Non Satis Scire ("to know is not enough").

Hampshire College is my alma mater and has been making headlines lately because—like many small liberal arts colleges around the country—it is on the verge of financial collapse because of its relatively small endowment. In a recent New York Times opinion piece, “A Small New England College Struggles to Survive,” Hampshire alumnus Jon Krakauer describes how the college's pedagogy addresses risk-taking, creativity, and problem-solving. Krakauer, the bestselling author of Into the Wild, writes:  

Creative problem solving was emphasized [at Hampshire]. Our professors encouraged us to consider the big picture and the long view, and embrace risk as a life strategy. Failing spectacularly in pursuit of an ambitious goal was thought to be salutary, and the shellacking instilled some humility. Whatever success I’ve had is rooted in those lessons. (Though even at Hampshire, one of my final academic projects — a four-week expedition to Alaska to attempt a very difficult peak in Denali National Park — provoked a fierce debate with the dean.) There are no majors or grades at Hampshire. Instead, each student is responsible for creating his or her own course of study, and then devising a series of six “exams” that must be passed to graduate. Attaining a bachelor’s degree might require four years of study, or six. Or three, for that matter.

Hampshire’s iconoclastic educational model is widely admired and deservedly praised. Given what lies ahead, however, it is not at all clear how much of the Hampshire philosophy — to say nothing of the Hampshire soul — will survive."

Although reading about Hampshire’s demise makes me sad and slightly dispirited, I’m grateful that the school’s unique approach to learning is in the national spotlight. I also believe that the pioneering work of Carola Salvi and her team can help teach people from all walks of life how to be more creative, and specific ways to optimize their day-to-day chances of having 'Aha!' moments.

Another reason not to dwell on the depressing aspects of Hampshire's fiscal challenge, or to become hopeless about the school's financial situation, is that staying pragmatically optimistic and maintaining a positive mood is positively correlated with solutions via insight and creativity (Subramaniam et al., 2009).

The conclusion of Salvi and Bowden's new study on risk and creativity sums up the key ingredients that go into facilitating 'Aha!' or 'Eureka!' moments as well as various factors that orient us towards insight vs. taking a more analytical approach to problem-solving:

"The role of mood in the expression of risk attitudes has been widely documented in experimental setups (see, e.g., Isen and Patrick, 1983; Arkes et al., 1988; Isen et al., 1988; Nygren et al., 1996; Nygren, 1998). Positive mood induces a state of diffuse attention and promotes creativity. Solutions via insight, and creative ideas are associated with spontaneous internal cognition, which has a greater chance of being expressed when a person is at rest, in a positive mood, or when attention is away from a demanding task as during mind wandering. We recognize that future studies will be needed to determine the relationship between affect or mood, risk taking, and problem-solving style. Risky situations may moderate a person’s affect (either positively or negatively), impulsiveness, and/or level of anxiety, which may then change their dominant problem-solving style.

On the other hand, affect, impulsiveness, and/or level of anxiety may moderate a person’s willingness to risk which may then change their dominant problem-solving style. A previous study (Salvi, et al., 2016) found that people tend to shift toward more analytical solutions when under the pressure of running out of time. Being in a situation of risk might induce a similar threatening state and need for alertness that orients our attention externally hindering creativity which calls for a more relaxed atmosphere, and internally oriented attention. The relation between situations of risk and reward and problem-solving style, seen in our data, can be explained by suggesting that being under risk may generally increase negative mood and alertness, narrow the focus of attention keeping us on task, and increase the desire to avoid negative outcomes. This cluster of factors orients people toward a more analytical problem-solving style."

On that note, the sun is coming up and I’m running out of time; I need to wrap this up before I start becoming too analytical.

Carola Salvi, thanks very much sharing your research with me and for the insightful email correspondence.


Carola Salvi and Edward Bowden. "The Relation Between State and Trait Risk Taking and Problem-Solving." Psychological Research (First published online: February 12, 2019) DOI: 10.1007/s00426-019-01152-y

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