How to have more insights

Mark Beeman is one of the eminent neuroscientists studying the ‘aha’ moment. As he said in a paper in the first NeuroLeadership Journal, “…variables that improve the ability to detect weak associations may improve insight solving.” In short, insights tend to involve connections between small numbers of neurons. An insight is often a long forgotten memory or a combination of memories. These memories don’t have a lot of neurons involved in holding them together. The trouble is, we only notice signals above whatever our base line of noise is. Everyday thought, like wondering what to have for lunch, might involve millions of neurons speaking to each other. An insight might involve only a few tens of thousands of neurons speaking to each other. Just as it’s hard to hear a quiet cell phone at a loud party, it’s hard to notice signals that have less energy than the general energy level already present in the brain. Hence, we tend to notice insights when our overall activity level in the brain is low. This happens when we’re not putting in a lot of mental effort, when we’re focusing on something repetitive, or just generally more relaxed like as we wake up. Insights require a quiet mind, because they themselves are quiet.

Animation of an MRI brain scan, starting at th...
The human brain is an extraordinary information processing system. It is brilliant at executing certain tasks, particularly physical task that can be codified, like playing an instrument or driving a car. However our brains have some surprisingly big limitations when it comes to certain types of mental tasks. Take linear problem solving, which involves trying to logically work out a solution to a question, like doing math or calculating a time zone difference. Doing this kind of task sometimes uses what’s called ‘working memory‘: we hold information in our memory and manipulate it or work on it. We need working memory when we don’t have an obvious answer to a problem: it’s used for things like making decisions, remembering and other cognitive tasks.

Our working memory turns out to be much more limited than people generally acknowledge. What do you get when you add ten plus ten? That’s easy. Twenty. Yet you don’t really need working memory for that, the answer is stored in long term memory. What about adding 128 with 287? You can do it, but it takes working memory. Adding up just six digits is quite an effort. What about mutiplying 23 and 56, without paper or a calculator? For most people it’s too much. Your working memory maxes out.

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