Monday, September 19, 2016

The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain

 Book Review Written by Donnalyn Roxey

It was the summer of 2015.  I was enrolled in Buffalo State’s Creativity and Change Leadership Graduate Certificate Program.  I was stressed.  My work at Ohio State was intense, and being away for the two week in residence summer program was not making anything easier.  Add to this the looming feeling of my culminating project, two years worth of work, a presentation on what creativity meant to me, my vision for my future, pretty much the most intense project ever, and I had to do it in front of people.  It was all I could think of for weeks prior to coming to Buffalo.  I had so many different versions of presentations, I felt stuck.  I was driving back to the friends house I was staying, listening to loud music, windows down, singing along, thinking about a party the Graduate Program was throwing us, when it hit.  My aha moment, the piece to the missing puzzle that was the theory of my creative journey.  I swerved off the road (thankful for little traffic) and immediately starting writing.  The euphoria, clarity and intense desire to get working felt like nothing short of a miracle.  Words little capture the happiness I felt to finally tie it all together.

I have not thought much about that experience since, except waxing moments of nostalgia, until picking up The Eureka Factor: Aha Moments, Creative Insight, and the Brain, by John Kounios and Mark Beeman. I couldn’t put it down.  Two years of studying the field of creativity and the nagging missing piece for me was, show me the science.  The tools I learned in the creative problem solving process really do work.  I watched them, participated in the process, facilitated the outcomes, but how did it work?  This book was my insight into the deeper context of creativity.  As the authors eloquently put it, “Insights are quantum leaps of thought, creative breakthroughs that power our lives and our history.” The Eureka Factor perfectly complemented storytelling and science.  Through hearing accounts of creative insights from eminent creatives such as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, and Barbara McClintock, to the everyday creative insights of test subjects and the authors themselves.

Kounios and Beeman, both active scientists, brilliantly articulate the detailed experimentation they performed as well as citing numerous other sources in their path to understanding what makes up creativity.  Using modern research methodologies, the authors accumulated fMRI and EEG brain scans, observational reports, and psychometric data from cognitive, emotional, and psychological testing.  The authors have the literary ability to turn complex concepts in neuroscience into an easily understandable and engaging read. Admittedly, I have the urge to take their model for insight (Immersion -> Impasse -> Diversion -> Insight) and digest it a bit more with a creative problem solving lense, and there were a few concepts that I would like to see more data on.  For example, mood. Research on the correlation of happiness with creativity is discussed.  However, literature is also cited relating depression with creativity.  I found myself wanting more discussion on the interconnections, if any, of these perceived polar opposites.

The authors support much of the creativity literature I am familiar with through experimental background on topics covering as much breadth as characteristics of creative people, how time of day and mood impact your creativity, as well as illustrating the complex idiosyncrasies between solving problems analytically vs. via insight.  Kounios and Beeman demonstrate our brain on intuition, mental illness and motivation.  Tantalizing neuroimaging experiments are recounted; experiments into left brain/right brain ability to form remote associations with language, and data collection for moments of insights, keep the reader engaged in this complex content.  Insightful problem solving (over analytical problem solving) results in a sudden high-frequency EEG burst of activity known as  gamma waves above the right ear and increased blood flow to the anterior superior temporal gyrus as captured with fMRI. Gamma waves are attributed to cognitive functions such as paying attention and linking together information, while the anterior superior temporal gyrus is known to be involved in making connections between distantly related objects.  Kounios and Beeman masterfully capture the science behind an aha moment. Another particularly interesting piece for me as a classically trained biologist was the surfacing of the nature vs nurture debate.  Outlining research between tendencies toward remote associations and schizotypes (non-mentally ill people with some schizophrenia genes activated), and psychological tests on identical twins, elucidated a genetic predisposition for certain creative traits. Kounios and Beeman pair these studies with experimental data suggesting how the environment can impact our creativity.  Time of day, happiness, cognitive style and attention can all attribute to higher states of creativity.  Outlining even data to suggest that you should continue to take that afternoon walk to stretch and get away from your computer, it may just produce your next creative insight.

While reading this book, I often revisited my car aha moment and looked inward to many other memories of inklings, insights, and hunches.  I found myself wishing to be a participant in these experiments, elucidating more aha moments and reading my brain waves.  In my humble opinion, a great narrative on the marriage between creativity and neuroscience; the Eureka Factor is a must read for anyone interested in the science of creativity. 

Donnalyn Roxey is a graduate student at the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State.  Donnalyn received her Bachelors of Science in Biological Sciences from the University of Maryland, College Park.  She went on to spend ten years in research development and grants administration at The Ohio State University before finding her passion for inciting creativity in others.  She is currently an innovation facilitator with Knowinnovation and spends her free time studying creativity in teams and playing with her two daughters in Columbus Ohio. 

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