Eureka Magic

Insights are sudden moments of exceptional thinking. The perfect metaphor is that of a bulb lighting up in an instant and illuminating everything around it. Who doesn’t love the story of the genius whose light bulb moments can illuminate everything?


So what is the truth about Eureka? I was given a chance to find out a couple of weeks ago.

With Historian of Science Anna Marie Roos I was part of an event during the Royal Society’s Summer Science Exhibition. The event was called “Cultivating Eureka”, and there was something in the introductory notes about trying to encourage Eureka moments. But, should we actually do this if these moments are to some extent fictions of the imagination?

Anna Marie Roos is contributing her own post on the topic. She talked about some famous Eureka moments and their embroidered history. I followed her with an attempt to conjure up these moments in the audience.

Here magic comes to the aid of science: On YouTube you can watch some amazing magic tricks. For instance those by Richard Wiseman on Quirkology.  Can you work out the solution to some of them? You may well ‘get it’ in a flash of sudden insight.

Psychologist Amory Danek has used a fascinating series of magic tricks to study the nature of insight moments. The results are reported in her paper in Cognition 2013. She highlights a particularly important aspect of insight: the need to let go of strongly held assumptions, when normally it would be madness to let go of them.

For instance, if we see a billiard ball, we assume it to be a round and solid object. But, consider this: You see only one side of the ball – could it be that what you see is only a half sphere, and a hollow one, which might hide other half spheres? This reminds me of the Yorkshire farmers who are looking across the dale. One farmer says to the other: “Yon farmer’s shorn his sheep”. After a while, the other replies, cautiously: “Aye, on wun side”.

What have we learned from scientific studies of insight?

  • It is necessary to have a prepared mind. A totally naïve observer who has no strong assumptions can’t solve the problem at all. There is preparatory thought going on – well before one can have a sudden ‘Aha’ insight.
  • We have to let go of some strong assumptions that we unconsciously have made before getting the insight. This is often counterintuitive.
  • We don’t know how insight happens at all.
  • Just having a lovely ‘Aha’ experience does not guarantee that you found the correct solution to the problem. Remember you can be wrong even if you are intuitively convinced you are right.
Can we will ourselves to have insight?

Not very likely.  Most of our thinking is unconscious and automatic and unconscious processes are hard to penetrate. A danger for both conscious and unconscious modes of thought is that we get stuck in a particular view and we go round in circles.

It may be a good idea to pursue solutions to tricky problems using a two-pronged strategy, both by analytic methods in step wise fashion, and by figuring and reconfiguring patterns. In the refiguring phase some relaxation is necessary so that connections to other and even remote types of knowledge are made.

Eureka graph

To see something in a new light, we need to remove blinkers that are created by sheer familiarity.  We have to let go of our previous knowledge – even though it has always proved a reliable guide.  How strange that knowledge can be a hindrance, but ignorance is not the answer. You need the knowledge, and you need to let go of it.

Does the Social Mind come into this?

How do you get out of a rut? How can you see a problem from a new angle?  Mind wandering, day dreaming, taking a nap, going for a walk are all good ideas. An even better idea is chatting to others. It is always worth talking to another person!

This hypothesis could easily be tested, but as far as I know it hasn’t been yet. The idea of the lonely genius may be just one of those thoughts that is blocking us. Yet it seems obvious that if we listen to others we may suddenly see different perspectives. This may shake up thoughts that have gone round and round in circles. Disappointingly, we have learned very little so far about insight from brain imaging studies. The brain doesn’t light up like a light bulb, but the neural activity during an Aha!- insight experience indicates that novel connections are being made.

Both insight and analytical thinking benefit from our social nature. Eureka moments in history are a vivid example of our unique style of human communication. They may only be stories, but they are  brilliant at conveying ground breaking scientific discoveries and they help us to remember them effortlessly.