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