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“The Eureka Factor” and Your Creative Brain

Photo: Saad Faruque
Photo: Saad Faruque

A creative insight can be as small as landing on an angle for a blog post or as big as discovering a fresh angle for a new book or business launch.

The moment you gain such an insight flashes like lightning – and vanishes like lightning. If you are not prone to pay attention to such moments, you likely will lose the insight and certainly not be able to replicate the conditions to have such insights again.

But can you become aware of such moments? And can you replicate them?

Those are questions I’ve lived in and pursued for years as a writer and creativity consultant.

But two neuroscientists advanced the questions more specifically:

What happens in the creative brain at such moments? Can the moment of creative insight be identified in the brain, and if so can we discover conditions that correlate with creative insight and, ostensibly, replicate those conditions?

Can we, in essence, be more deliberately inspired?

In fact, their studies show three conditions that you can cultivate that predictably lead to creative insight.

Mark Beeman at Northwestern University and John Kouinos of Drexel have been tracking these questions for over ten years, and their new book The Eureka Factor: The Aha Moment, Creative Insight, and the Brain is notable because it’s among the first books on creativity in which the scientists themselves describe their own work.

In 2004, they made their own break-throughs. With advances in brain scanning technology, they studied a variety of participants as they performed Compound Random Association Problems (CRAP, for short). A typical CRAP gives you three words, and through your powers of creative association you come up with the fourth word that can be associated with all three. For instance, I might give you these three words:




Which one word can you combine with all three? (Spoiler alert coming.)

The response: MATCH.

You can play a tennis match, you can strike match, and match and same are near-synonymous. If you gained that insight on your own, you likely had an aha! moment. That aha! moment consistently is characterized as “surprised, delighted, and confident in its certainty.” Something else consistently happens: Your right temporal lobe located just above the ear likely lit up. That’s the first breakthrough finding in 2004 that brought Beeman and Kouinos national recognition. Before this first seminal study, most of what was known about this region is that it was associated with our ability to appreciate humor and metaphors. Appreciating humor and metaphors, by the way, typically requires a similar flexibility, association, and openness to surprise.

Note: Obviously, using CRAP as a measure of creative insight has its own limitations. It relies upon linguistic intelligence – not the only measure of creativity – and it also relies upon a certain convergent thinking of culturally agreed upon associations. Those limitations aside, Beeman’s and Kouinos’s findings have helped us understand how creative insight functions.

But so what? How is this information useful for us as business artists, entrepreneurs, writers, designers, artists? You’re likely not going to play CRAP to build your creative insight muscles. Fortunately, the Beeman-Kouinos team had the same question. So, they pursued further studies to determine what predictable conditions correlate with the moment that the right temporal lobe lights up.

Here’s the cool thing: They refined their studies to the point that they could predict within seven seconds which of their scanned-brain participants would gain a creative insight.

Here are the three conditions:

1. Relaxed Focus – In The Journey from the Center to the Page (2004; 2008), I outlined the early evidence that writers can slow down their frontal cortex’s brain waves from a rapid oscillating cycle of beta waves (approximately 13-36 oscillations a second) to a slower cycle of alpha waves (approximately 6-13 oscillations a second). This wave-length pattern correlates to what we call “flow,” that relaxed focused immersion in a creative or intellectual activity. Using EEGs, Beeman and Kouinos recognized that this state of relaxed focus correlates to those participants who reached the creative insight.

2. Humor and a Positive Emotional State – In one study, one group watched a Robin Williams monologue before performing the CRAP puzzles. Another group didn’t. Guess which group was remarkably more likely to reach creative insight? Right. Why? Well, probably two reasons. Wit is an exchange of clever associations, delightfully surprising connections, and mind-twisting verbal acrobatics – the very qualities that light up the creative insight center, the right temporal lobe. The other reason is that when we laugh, our minds open. Our cognitive repertoire of problem-solving expands (cf, Barbara Fredrickson’s Broaden-and-Build Theory).

3. Meta-Awareness – Here’s where Beeman meets the Buddha. It’s what I call the 7-second factor of creative insight. This third factor was the one that let the scientists predict within seven seconds which participants would reach creative insight. Meta-awareness is the ability to be aware of your awareness. You can watch your thoughts and thinking process. You can catch your mind going down tried and true pathways and then adjust, break pattern, go rogue, and go cognitively off-roading where you might find the creative insight. When participants became aware of their own thought patterns, their medial frontal lobe lit up. Within a few seconds of a relaxed yet focused participants’ medial frontal lobe lighting up, scientists could predict fairly reliably that those participants would gain creative insight within seconds.

You can wait for The Eureka Factor to come out in order to learn more about how to cultivate these qualities.

Prime your mind with a problem, then breathe deeply, get good sleep, watch an episode of Mork and Mindy, and watch your crazy thoughts go by.



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