Jonah Lehrer subtitles his article “The Eureka Hunt”, “Why do good ideas come to us when they do?” For example, why did Wag Dodge come up with the idea to light a fire in order to save him from another in a fleeting, deciding moment? Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, has been trying to figure out exactly that. It’s called insight, and it’s the difference between methodically analyzing a problem to hopefully come up with a solution, or BAM! — making that association and it suddenly appearing into consciousness. Jung-Beeman teamed up with John Kounios, a cognitive neuroscientist from Drexel University, and together they realized that combining EEG and fMRI scans “might allow them to construct a precise map, both in time and space, of the insight process,” while having subjects attempt to solve puzzles of word-association called Compound Remote Associate Problems. The scientists, who believe that insight comes from the right-hemisphere, triggered by unconscious processes in the pre-frontal cortex, take note of the steady emission of alpha waves and surge of gamma rays that seem to represent a period of relaxation followed by that BAM of insight. While the brain chemistry behind those epiphanies is still very hazy, these studies give a glint of hope that one day by “drug or technology or just a new way to structure our environment” we could actually encourage insight.
Many parts of this article were very interesting to me. For one, I was really intrigued by the experienced practitioner of Zen meditation who was so good focusing on not being focused that “he became an insight machine”. Also, I would love to hear more about the point raised about how hallucinogenic drugs that by working on the pre-frontal cortex, trick people into having the “feeling of an insight but without the content”.
I will just make a sidenote that timing is impeccable; I love when courses I’m taking prove to be interrelated and relevant to one another! I literally just this week learned in my cognitive psychology class about the top-down processing Earl Miller explains, and just today read in my abnormal psychology textbook about the characteristics of schizotypal personality disorder that is brought up in the German study Lehrer refers to. Very cool.