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Eureka Moments Come from Deep Within Subconscious Brain

The ancient Greek scientist Archimedes, who has just realized the principle of how weight is displaced in water, runs out of his bath, shouting “Eureka!” to tell the world about it in a famous scene showing the moment of his great insight. Modern scientists have now discovered just how these insights occur — in the deep subconscious, not as a result of logical processes in the brain. Credit: Giammaria Mazzucchelli/Public Domain

Eureka moments — the concepts that come to us seemingly out of the blue, after we have wrestled with problems for a great deal of time, as happened with the ancient Greek scientist Archimedes — are created below the level of conscious awareness, scientists now believe.

Despite our best analytical thinking, which as we can see from the brilliance of Archimedes, was formidable — these earth-shattering concepts spring from a place that is unrelated to our analytical, logical side.

Scientists in Belgium found recently that people in a study solved puzzles while juggling an unrelated mental problem by relying on purely spontaneous insight, not analytic thinking, as reported in Scientific American.

Eureka moments are moments of great insight, epiphanies, “Aha!” breakthroughs

While psychologists call these sudden breakthroughs “insight,” others, who are more philosophically inclined, might call them epiphanies. Whatever you may call them, we know what they are – those sudden moments of crystal clarity when some concept or another suddenly comes to us unbidden.

This is true as well when we suddenly get that answer after taking a break from trying to solve a problem, or remember that name that has been bedeviling us for days, after we give up and go on to other tasks.

Archimedes, who many experts believe was the mind behind the brilliant invention called the Antikythera Mechanism, the world’s first computer, was the first Westerner known to have recorded such a moment. And it came at just such a relaxing time, when he was enjoying a bath one day; meanwhile, his subconscious mind was working away. All of a sudden when the enormous concept of what became known as “The Archimedes Principle” occurred to him.

The Belgian scientists have now identified unique brain activity patterns that signal these moments of insight; however, the debate had continued as to whether these insights are just the final step in a targeted thought process — or conversely, an entirely separate type of thinking.

The new study provides evidence that insight utilizes unconscious mechanisms that are different from analytic, logical reasoning. The researchers found that even when individuals are busy managing a number of different demands on their power of logic, their intuitive, more creative, thought processes were still accessible to them.

Hans Stuyck, a doctoral student at Université Libre de Bruxelles and KU Leuven in Belgium, who led the study, explained to Smithsonian “You can be overloaded by all this type of stuff, cell phones or whatever, and your insights remain shielded.”

Relaxed state leads to subconscious creating answers to our problems

The study, which was published in December of 2021 in the journal Cognition, included 70 word puzzles that undergraduate students were tasked with solving — using either their insight or logical reasoning.

Each puzzle, which consisted of three Dutch words displayed on a computer screen, involved the finding of a fourth word that paired with each of them. An English-language example would be the three words “artist,” “hatch” and “route,” with “escape” being the correct fourth word, with “escape artist,” “escape hatch” and “escape route” being the phrases created.

The 105 college students, a majority of whom were women, were allowed up to 25 seconds to solve each word problem. After giving their answer, they had to indicate whether or not they came to it via an “Aha!” or “Eureka” moment, as if a lightbulb had gone off in a dark room, or if they had come upon it logically, step-by-step.

Participants were divided into three groups, one of which received only the word puzzles; another group had to solve the puzzles while being exposed to random numbers on a screen, which they were tasked with recalling afterward. In a third group, the subjects had to try to remember a total of four numbers.

Making people remember random digits burdened their brains with a completely unrelated task, which the scientists expected to interfere with their ability to problem-solve. “These cognitive resources, this pool that we can tap into to do anything consciously, is limited,” Stuyck explains.

The issue they wanted to explore was whether or not insightful thinking would be affected in a similar way.

The type of analytical thinking, evidenced by coming up with phrases such as “con artist,” quickly searching memory banks to see whether or not “con” could be paired with “hatch” or “route,” led predictably to diminishing returns. The subjects solved an average of 16 puzzles when they had no numbers to remember — but they solved only 12 puzzles if they were tasked with remembering two digits.

They solved just eight puzzles when they were asked to remember four numbers.

Using insight, not logic, to solve puzzles leads to greater success

But when they reported that they had used insight — not step-by-step logic — to arrive at their word-pairing phrases, not only was their rate of success higher, incredibly, it was completely unaffected by the number-recalling task they carried out.

These subjects completed an average of 18 puzzles — across all three groups. “Whether they don’t have the memory task or they have a low-demand memory task or a high-demand memory task, the number of puzzles they solve with insight remains constant,” Stuyck explains, adding “That’s the most interesting result.”

This results shows that a large amount of brain activity is unconscious, as evidenced by how we perform perfunctory tasks without literally even thinking — driving to work automatically. Cognitive psychologists are still not agreed regarding our brains’ ability to reason subconsciously. Stuyck admits “There is so much debate within the literature” as to whether or not this is taking place.

However, he believes that there is a give-and-take between conscious and unconscious processes when we experience these Eureka moments. An example of this would be when people attempt to fins common word associations with the words “pine/crab/sauce.” A number of word associations are activated in our brains — but only the strongest are accessible to our conscious

Stuyck says that if the correct answer is a weaker association, people may feel stymied and unable to solve the problem — but beneath the surface, completely beneath their consciousness, a force may be working behind the scenes to make the word appear to the conscious mind.

The answer, for all those of us who didn’t get it, is “apple.”

Mark Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University who is a leading expert on insight, and who did not contribute to the new study, sheds further light on the behavior of this part of our mind. “Trying to find a creative solution to a problem is like trying to see a dim star at night,” he states, adding “You have to kind of look at it out of the corner of your mind.”

Beeman points out something that all of us have noted in our own lives, that Eureka moments usually only happen after we lay aside a problem aside after spending time pondering over it. Once that thought foundation has been laid down through our own conscious mental effort, taking part in a relaxing walk, nap — or like Archimedes, a nice bath — appears to bring forth a breakthrough in creativity.

And this event — as it clearly did with Archimedes, who ran naked through the streets when he came upon his idea about the displacement of weight in water — usually comes with very positive feelings of satisfaction and a knowledge of their certainty, the researchers say.

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