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Mark Beeman Gives Insights into Eureka Moments

Jan 24, 2011 9:00 AM
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Where do insights come from? The kind that just appear out of nowhere, offering instant solutions that give you a “Eureka!” moment?

That’s what Mark Beeman, associate professor at Northwestern University's Department of Psychology and Institute for Neuroscience, aims to find out.  For nearly two decades Beeman has studied how the brain thinks, using fMRIs to scan the brains of his problem-solving test subjects. As he told a packed room of students and professors at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science on Jan. 18, genius might be 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, but “you might need that one percent for your competitive advantage.”

Click here to watch a video of the presentation.

Ideas come to us by building on old ideas. But this can happen either by performing a long, methodical analysis, or by sudden insight. Insights often come when people have reached an impasse on a problem and must reinterpret or reframe the question. It involves unconscious processing, creative thought, cognitive flexibility, and divergent thinking.

Beeman uses cognitive neuroscience as a way to research insights. Specifically, he gave his test subjects three words and asked them to come up with a third word that would make compound words or phrases out of the first three words. (Example: Heart, Tooth, and Potato. Answer: Sweet.) He used fMRI and EEG scans to watch the activity in their brains during their thought process, and when they found the correct answer, he asked them whether they figured it out through analysis, such as strategic trial and error, or whether the answer came to them suddenly, as an insight.

Both EEGs and fMRIs showed that when a person had an insight, it involved the anterior Temporal lobe of the right hemisphere. This area is important for drawing distantly related information together when understanding language. Beeman also found that the right temporal lobe had a sudden burst of high-frequency activity when an insight occurred. Such activity is associated with complex cognitive processing, particularly with the emergence of a concept or percept into consciousness.

Beeman even found activity that predicted when an insight would happen: about one and a half seconds before an insight occured, a burst of lower frequency activity appeared over the back of the brain, which may show the effect of “gating” of visual input, which allows a solution to gain strength before it bursts into consciousness.

“That is like the brain’s way of closing its eyes,” he said. “Some part of your brain detected something else worth paying attention to.”

Beeman also found that people’s moods affected their insights — those in a positive mood solved more problems with insight.


Ultimately, his research shows that it’s possible to use neural evidence to expand theories of insight and creativity, he said. While thinking inside the box is helpful to solve many problems, “you have to know when to go outside the box.”

Read a New Yorker article about Beeman’s work.

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