You know the sweet satisfaction when you suddenly have an epiphany? I'm talking about that "Aha!" moment when the circuits suddenly connect and, seemingly out of nowhere, you are struck with an insight.
Today, using fMRI technology, neuroscientists can watch the revelation unfold on a cellular level. Neurons begin to cluster and activity speeds up, eventually giving way to burst of energy not unlike a mini fireworks show. All this can be witnessed by the fMRI technician about eight seconds before the subject is aware of their impending moment of truth.
So how does this all work?
First, it’s important to differentiate between an actual Eureka moment and a more mundane retrieval of information from your hippocampus, that general purpose library of memories.
Insights are not merely rediscovering misplaced data, like suddenly remembering where your car keys are. They are combinations or reinterpretations of information, creating something entirely different or new. They are the embodiment of what it means to “think outside the box.”
It starts with consciously trying to solve a problem. Then there is the required period of struggle, hitting the proverbial brick wall with no solution in sight. Take the classic father and son riddle:
A father and his son are in a car accident. The father dies at the scene and the son is rushed to the hospital. At the hospital, the surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, "I can't operate on this child, he's my son.” How can this be???
This brainteaser plays on the fact that some readers will automatically assume the surgeon is male.
Suppose you are one of those people whose gender bias prevented you from seeing the answer right away. Even though your prefrontal cortex might be stumped, unbeknownst to you, your subconscious brain is still working overtime trying to figure it out.
Interestingly, it seems that when your prefrontal cortex hits an impasse, it triggers other brain functions to kick into gear. This sets up the opportunity for free association by bypassing your analytical train of thought in favor of the hippocampus’s vast storage of information, feeling, and experience.
Your subconscious brain essentially goes into improvisational mode, and what we call daydreaming is actually this freewheeling engine hard at work. This is a critical aspect of the epiphany process for every one of us, from the average Joe or Jane in the street to Albert Einstein. (Einstein called his daydreaming "thought experiments.")
Because all this business is going on below your awareness, when the solution floats up into your rational mind fully formulated, it feels as if it came out of nowhere.