Fwd: Eureka!

From: Wade T. Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Tue Dec 18 2001 - 21:56:11 GMT

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    Eureka!

    The thrill of discovery is the purest, least understood event in science.
    Now, studies of the brain are revealing the anatomy of a 'Eureka moment.'

    By Gareth Cook, Globe Staff, 12/18/2001

    http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/352/science/Eureka_P.shtml

    The story begins in utter confusion.

    Imagine reading a sentence that doesn't seem to make sense: ''The girl
    spilled her popcorn because the lock broke.'' The mind starts casting
    about for answers: Who is the girl? Why would she have popcorn, and why
    would a lock make her drop it?

    Then comes the clue - lion cage. Suddenly - aha! - the sentence snaps
    into focus. Such a moment of clarity may feel like a fleeting and
    mysterious experience, but now Tufts University scientists say they can
    measure it. Using sentences like the one above, they are finding that the
    ''eureka moment'' is marked by a distinct electrical pulse in the brain.

    Their work suggests that eureka moments can be studied in the laboratory
    - and that they could be used to improve people's ability to learn and
    remember.

    ''The `aha sentences' are a beautiful analogy to what happens when a
    scientist creates a new theory,'' said Sal Soraci, an associate professor
    at Tufts and one of the scientists involved. ''Suddenly you look back and
    it all makes sense.''

    The eureka moment has a long and colorful history in human culture. The
    word eureka - ''I have found it'' - was supposedly uttered by Archimedes
    as he was gripped by a sudden realization in his bath. Such instantaneous
    flashes of insight have shaped history in profound ways, inspiring new
    scientific theories as well as lively artistic, philosophical and
    religious movements. Charles Darwin, for example, said the theory of
    evolution occurred to him in a sudden storm, while reading a book by
    Thomas Malthus on population.

    Scientists working today tell of similar experiences, even if they do not
    understand its source. Daniel Dennett, a leading theorist on the nature
    of consciousness, said that when he is stuck on a problem, sometimes he
    will think about it a little before going out to do chores at his Maine
    farm.

    ''Very often, at some point, when I am going around and around the field,
    all of a sudden I have a breakthrough,'' said Dennett, who is the
    director of the center for cognitive studies at Tufts University.

    But such eureka moments were long thought to be too ephemeral to study,
    except anecdotally, after the fact.

    Now, work by Soraci and other scientists indicates that the eureka moment
    can not only be detected electrically, but may itself hold important
    secrets, giving new insights into creativity, thinking and memory, and
    even suggesting better ways to teach. One of the secrets may be the
    intriguing notion that confusion is key to memory.

    In 1979, Soraci and a group of other scientists found a way to start
    lifting the veil when they discovered what they called ''the aha effect.''

    They gave subjects sentences and asked them to remember as many of the
    sentences as they could. In some cases, the sentences made sense. In
    others, they didn't make sense until a key word was given. (For example:
    ''The home was small because the sun came out: Igloo.'') The team found
    that the subjects were much more likely to remember information delivered
    in the form of aha sentences - sentences where the subjects experienced a
    period of confusion before suddenly being given a key.

    A more recent paper showed the same effect with images. If an image is
    shown far out of focus, and slowly brought into focus, people have an aha
    moment when the blob become recognizable. Regardless of their
    intelligence, people remembered these images much better than if the
    image started clear and was then moved out of focus, according to the
    paper by Soraci and collaborators in the July issue of the American
    Journal of Mental Retardation.

    Soraci said that he now believes confusion is an essential part of
    remembering things. As the object comes into focus, he said, the brain
    generates a stream of guesses (Is it a doughnut? A peace symbol?) until
    the truth emerges (a clock). These wrong guesses may lay the foundation
    for a strong memory, he said. Other experiments conducted by Solaci, in
    which people have to generate words in response to clues, have shown the
    same effect.

    The work ''reinforces the importance of letting people struggle with
    concepts a little bit first,'' said Dorothy Leonard, who has been
    following the research and is a professor of business administration at
    Harvard Business School. Harvard's MBA program has long used case studies
    where students are presented with a wealth of information, sometimes
    confusing and contradictory, without being told the lesson ahead of time.

    Solaci said educators should strive to design lessons that will give
    students aha moments. A lesson on evolution, for example, might start
    with some of the same clues Darwin saw - striking similarities between
    man and ape, finches exquisitely attuned to their environments - before
    explaining his theory.

    Harvard's Leonard said that the research was of particular interest to
    her as she designed new educational programs for executives. ''The
    pressure is to provide answers, to provide frameworks, to provide
    lists,'' Leonard said. ''But, if [Soraci's] research is correct, they
    will not remember them as long if you don't design in time to be confused
    and struggling.''

    Meanwhile, scientists say that another rapidly growing field of research
    is making them rethink the aha moment in other ways. One of the hallmarks
    of a eureka-type realization is its suddenness, but these moments may not
    be so sudden after all.

    James L. Olds, a university professor of neuroscience at George Mason
    University, said every year brings more evidence of the many ways the
    brain works away on problems even when we are not consciously aware of it.

    The classic example, Olds said, is motor learning, where someone improves
    a golf stroke or tennis serve by practicing, but is not conscious of the
    lessons being learned. More recent work suggests the same is true with
    higher learning. For example, the basic task of recognizing an object -
    which seems sudden to the conscious mind - actually occurs gradually,
    said Moshe Bar, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School who
    published the research in the the journal Neuron.

    Research like this hints that a eureka moment is not so much a quick
    mental leap as it is the final stage of a long, partly unconscious battle
    to understand.

    In the most recent research on aha moments, scientists have measured a
    distinct pattern of brain activity that comes with the sudden insight,
    according to Amanda DeFiore, the lead scientist on the experiment, which
    has not been published. About 400 milliseconds after the key word is
    read, revealing the meaning of the sentence, electrodes on the scalp pick
    up a pulse, called an N400.

    The N400 is well known to other researchers but, with aha moments, the
    pulse seems to be coming from a more-forward part of the brain, said
    DeFiore, who is an engineering psychologist at the Volpe National
    Transportation Systems Center in Cambridge and is finishing her
    dissertation, under Soraci, at Tufts University.

    The next step, DeFiore said, would be to use more sophisticated
    brain-scanning equipment to discern where in the brain, precisely, the
    aha pulse originates. Eureka moments remain deeply mysterious, she said,
    but, with this information, perhaps everything would start falling into
    place.

    This story ran on page C13 of the Boston Globe on 12/18/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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