Thursday, July 31, 2008

Where great ideas come from...

I love finding out how our brains (possibly) work, and one of the most intriguing problems is where inspiration comes from, and how to make it happen more than twice a decade or so.  In a fascinating article in the New Yorker, we get some insight into insight.
The resulting studies, published in 2004 and 2006, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of no- where, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The first areas activated during the problem- solving process were those involved with executive control, like the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The scientists refer to this as the “preparatory phase,” since the brain is devoting its considerable computational power to the
The various sensory areas, like the visual cortex, go silent as the brain suppresses possible distractions. “The cortex does this for the same reason we close our eyes when we’re trying to think,” Jung-Beeman said. “Focus is all about blocking stuff out.”
What happens next is the “search phase,” as the brain starts looking for answers in all the relevant places. Because Jung-Beeman and Kounios were giving people word puzzles, they saw additional activity in areas related to speech and language. The search can quickly get frustrating, and it takes only a few seconds before people say that they’ve reached an impasse, that they can’t think of the right word. “Almost all of the possibilities your brain comes up with are going to be wrong,” Jung-Beeman said. “And it’s up to the executive- control areas to keep on searching or, if necessary, change strategies and start searching somewhere else.” But sometimes, just when the brain is
about to give up, an insight appears.

“You’ll see people bolt up in their chair and their eyes go all wide,” Ezra Wegbreit, a graduate student in the Jung-Beeman lab who often administers the C.R.A. test, said. “Sometimes they even say ‘Aha!’ before they blurt out the answer.” The suddenness of the insight comes with a burst of brain activity. Three hundred milliseconds before a participant communicates the answer, the EEG registers a spike of gamma rhythm, which is the highest electrical frequency generated by the brain. Gamma rhythm is thought to come from the “binding” of neurons, as cells distributed across the cortex draw themselves together into a new network, which is then able to enter consciousness. It’s as if the insight had gone
incandescent.  [More of a great read. If you are under 40, be sure to read about caffeine]
But the key finding for me was why I get my only good ideas at times when I can let them slip away: running, driving down the road/field, day-dreaming, etc.  They have a theory on that too.
 But, once the brain is sufficiently focussed, the cortex needs to relax in order to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere, which will provide the insight. “The relaxation phase is crucial,” Jung-Beeman said. “That’s why so many insights happen during warm showers.”
Another ideal moment for insights, according to the scientists, is the early morning, right after we wake up. The drowsy brain is unwound and disorganized, open to all
sorts of unconventional ideas. The right hemisphere is also unusually active. Jung-
Beeman said, “The problem with the morning, though, is that we’re always so rushed. We’ve got to get the kids ready for school, so we leap out of bed and never give ourselves a chance to think.” He recom- mends that, if we’re stuck on a difficult problem, it’s better to set the alarm clock a few minutes early so that we have time to lie in bed and ruminate. We do some of our best thinking when we’re still half asleep.
Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck,
scribble equations on cocktail napkins.
One of the problem we may be having is over-scheduling our lives and hence, our brains. With little free-wheeling time, we are denied the maximum possibility for great thinking. It could be something as simple taking Sunday off, shutting down the cell phone, or setting aside a few minutes of quiet thought could reap huge rewards in the way of new solutions or outright innovation for the problems of our lives.

While I'm pretty sure Jan would not buy the Feynman method, I could probably peddle a little more goofing-off.

In fact, I'm going to waste some time right now.

[via mefi]


Anonymous said...

Just finished the new book "Brain Rules." It's a good read for anyone interested in exploring what we know (and what we don't know) about our how our brains work.

Anonymous said...

Hello. Found this blog while looking for the CRA(P) test, or sample questions from the test, after reading the NYer article. Know where they might be found? Anyone?

Anonymous said...

I posted the question looking for the test. I ran across these two reports if you're interested:
and found 4 questions in them.

The socks question: took me 15 seconds (including initially solving for the wrong thing), no insight--I reasoned.
2 word association questions were almost instantaneous, 1-2 seconds--insight.
The last word association (Tooth/Potato/Heart) took me maybe a whole minute, but then, writing down the words, insight! Out of nowhere, like they said. Also, I said all the insight answers out loud before I even realized what I was saying. Interesting.