Drexel psychology professor John Kounios presented a seminar titled “‘Aha!’ Moments in the Brain” April 10 regarding two forms of human thought processes used to solve problems. Kounios focused on the differences between analytic thought, which is a deliberate and methodical way of solving problems; and what humans have come to know as the “Aha!” moment, a sudden burst of creative insight. Kounios presented his own research and collaborative efforts with other psychologists to explain these forms of thought as well as what they mean for people in their daily lives.
Kounios began his seminar with an extraordinary example of an “Aha!” moment. Surrounded by flames during the Mann Gulch Fire of 1949, firefighter Wagner Dodge decided to burn the grass surrounding him in an effort to avoid being killed by the approaching wildfire. It worked, and Dodge survived. Events like this make psychologists such as Kounios wonder what causes humans to solve complex problems suddenly.
“What went on in Dodge’s brain to make him do this? What was he thinking? What happens in your brain? We want to know what happens in a brain when someone has a moment of creative insight,” Kounios said.
Researchers found a distinct difference between humans’ conscious method of analytical thought and their insightful, creative “Aha!” moments. Kounios, who specializes in electroencephalography technology, the recording of electrical activity in the brain, scanned and tracked the brain activity of people who had been asked challenging, “outside-the-box” questions. These were questions that could not be solved through a series of analytical steps. What he found was that certain parts of the brain were more active in the seconds leading up to the moment of insight. In addition, problems that did require analytic thought caused increased activity in separate regions of the brain.
Kounios explained when and why these two methods of problem solving might appear. He said that thinking of events in the future allows for more insightful, abstract thought, whereas events with an impending deadline squash creativity and cause one to think more analytically and realistically.
“If I were to tell you that one year from now you’re going to go on a business trip to Tokyo, what would you think?” Kounios asked. “You would probably start wondering if you were going to receive a promotion or if your boss was trying to get you out of the office. But if I told you that you’re going on a business trip to Tokyo tomorrow, you would probably wonder if your passport is up to date, remind yourself to cancel your dentist appointment or do your laundry. You would think of the more concrete things instead of the abstract things when you’re told it’s a year away.”
This theory caused students and faculty to raise questions about the effects of procrastination and the use of drugs such as Ritalin on analytic and insightful thought. Kounios said that the productivity many students feel as a result of working under pressure comes from increased effort, not from increased analytic thought. Likewise, Kounios said that the use of ADHD medications such as Adderall is likely to decrease creativity rather than improve it.
Kounios also explored the origins of the term “thinking outside the box” and explained the purpose of this “box” in people’s daily lives.
“Why do we have to think outside the box? Why are we in the box to begin with?” Kounios asked. “It seems as though that restriction is necessary for us to get through life on a daily basis. If you think about all of the possibilities in a given situation, if you think about all of the information around you, you would be overwhelmed. Your brain is not big enough and fast enough to process all of the possibilities. You need blinders. The blinder is the ‘box.’”
However, Kounios explained that these “blinders,” which make it easy for people to complete basic everyday tasks, are what make it hard for us to solve more complex problems. Getting rid of these blinders is what is referred to as insight.
The lecture was part of the Dean’s Seminar Series.