Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Human Mind’s ‘Aha!’ Moments

I have long been fascinated by the capacity of the human mind to spark inspiration, giving rise to the ‘Eureka’ or ‘Aha!’ moment. Lord Robert Winston in a 2003 BBC series titled The Human Mind (which has only now made it to Australian television?) explores salient research on brain science, pointing towards ways of improving our memories and accessing our intuition.

Apparently, the ability to memorise 10 decks of cards in order (a series of 520 in toto) within 20 seconds lies with us all. At a critical point of realisation, marked by a surge of electrical activity in the right temporal lobe (as measured on an electroencephalogram or 'EEG'), we exhibit the exhilaration of complex problem solving. Research undertaken by Dr. Jung Beeman et al, published in PLoS Biology, points to the process of insight and ‘aha’:

‘We observed two objective neural correlates of insight. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (Experiment 1) revealed increased activity in the right hemisphere anterior superior temporal gyrus for insight relative to noninsight solutions. The same region was active during initial solving efforts. Scalp electroencephalogram recordings (Experiment 2) revealed a sudden burst of high-frequency (gamma-band) neural activity in the same area beginning 0.3 s prior to insight solutions. This right anterior temporal area is associated with making connections across distantly related information during comprehension. Although all problem solving relies on a largely shared cortical network, the sudden flash of insight occurs when solvers engage distinct neural and cognitive processes that allow them to see connections that previously eluded them.’

The documentary stated that it is with a relaxed mind that we achieve such insight. It was no coincidence that Isaac Newton was in an orchard when observing gravity, Galileo in church overcome by the swing of incense in the discovery of how to mark time, and Maxwell Planck was at the races when theorising about atomic function. This points to the importance of finding state of flow, as discussed in my first post. Perhaps it really is when we are not threatened by or preoccupied by externalities that we can achieve enlightenment, the self-actualisation showing personal growth and fulfilment to which Maslow points in his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’ in Psychological Review. Motivation lies at the core of my research, so these insights fascinate me. Now I am hoping that there’s an ‘aha’ moment which accompanies them!

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