Brain Studies on Creativity reveal what goes on at that “Aha!” moment


Daniel Goleman’s book The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights is revealing what goes on at that “Aha!” moment, and exactly reflecting Professor Sir Harry Kroto description of his experience when he discovery the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene – a new form of carbon), when Professor Sir Harry Kroto said to me “…it is when you have been completely engaged in a thought or problem during day & night for months and your mind momentarily relaxes, the solution or idea suddenly becomes clear.”

Brain studies on creativity reveal what goes on at that “Aha!” moment when we get a sudden insight. If you measure EEG brain waves during a creative moment, it turns out there is very high gamma activity that spikes 300 milliseconds before the answer comes to us. Gamma activity indicates the binding together of neurons, as far-flung brain cells connect in a new neural network – as when a new association emerges. Immediately after that gamma spike, the new idea enters our consciousness.

This heightened activity focuses on the temporal area, a center on the side of the right neocortex. This is the same brain area that interprets metaphor and “gets” jokes. It understands the language of the unconscious what Freud called the “primary process”: the language of poems, of art, of myth. It’s the logic of dreams where anything goes and the impossible is possible.

That high gamma spike signals that the brain has a new insight. At that moment, right hemisphere cells are using these longer branches and connections to other parts of the brain. They’ve collected more information and put it together in a novel organization.

What’s the best way to mobilize this brain ability?  It’s first to concentrate intently on the goal or problem, and then relax into stage three: let go. The converse of letting go – trying to force an insight – can inadvertently stifle creative breakthrough. If you’re thinking and thinking about it, you may just be getting tenser and not coming up with fresh ways of seeing things, let alone a truly creative insight.

So to get to the next stage, you just let go. Unlike the intense focus of grappling with a problem head-on, the third stage is characterized by a high alpha rhythm, which signals mental relaxation, a state of openness, of daydreaming and drifting, where we’re more receptive to new ideas. This sets the stage for the novel connections that occur during the gamma spike.

Those moments of out-of-the-blue, spontaneous creative insights may seem to come out of nowhere. But we can assume that the same process has gone on, where there was some degree of engagement in a creative problem, and then during “down time” neural circuits make novel associations and connections. Even when creative insights seem to arise on their own, the brain may be going through the same moves as during the three classical stages.

On the other hand, I would guess that the three or four classical stages of creativity are somewhat of a useful fiction – the creative spirit is more freewheeling than that. I think the main neural action is between intense focus on the problem and then relaxing about it. And when that creative idea arrives, it’s almost certain that the brain has gone through that same heightened pitch of gamma activity that was found in the lab.

Is there a way to create the conditions whereby the gamma spike is more likely to occur? Gamma spikes normally come at random – they can’t be forced. But the mental stage can be set. The pre-work for the gamma spike includes defining the problem, then immersing yourself in it. And then you let it all go – and it’s during the let-go period that gamma spike is most likely to arise, along with that “Aha!” moment, the light bulb over the head of a cartoon figure.

There’s a physical marker we sometimes feel during a gamma spike: pleasure. With the “Aha!” comes joy. Then there’s that fourth stage, implementation, where a good idea will either sink or swim. I remember talking to the director of a huge research lab. He had about 4,000 scientists and engineers working for him. He told me, “We have a rule about a creative insight: if somebody offers a novel idea, instead of the next person who speaks shooting it down – which happens all too often in organizational life – the next person who speaks must be an ‘angel’s advocate,’ someone who says, ‘that’s a good idea and here’s why.'”

Creative ideas are like a fragile bud – they’ve got to be nurtured so they can blossom.

Learn more about maximizing your brain states at work with The Brain and Emotional Intelligence: New Insights from More Than Sound by Daniel Goleman.


Innovation in children. Does our education system cultivate or destroy?

A 6 year old found it very difficult to concentrate in school except for in drawing lessons. The teacher was intrigued, so during the drawing lesson she went over to observe the child and asked
“What are you drawing?”
And the child said
“I am drawing a picture of God”
The teacher replied
“But no one knows what God looks like”
The child answered
“They will in a minute!”

Children are born with an extraordinary capacity of innovation, and creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson challenges the way we are educating our children. He champions a radical rethink of our education system, to cultivate creativity and acknowledge multiple types of intelligence. He says “all children have multiple types of intelligence and creativity should have an equal importance to literacy in our education and be treated with the same status”.

Further, children are less likely to be concerned about “getting it wrong” than adults and are therefore more open to “having a go” and trying different ideas.

Adults were taught in school that it is bad to be getting it wrong, and Companies are therefore following in the same path crippled by the stigma of “getting it wrong”.

Is it time for a change?

Engagement Generates New Ideas

I remember, when I attended lectures held by Professor Sir Harry Kroto at the University of Sussex a few years after his discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene – a new form of carbon), Professor Sir Harry Kroto saying to me “…it is when you have been completely engaged in a thought or problem during day & night for months and your mind momentarily relaxes, the solution or idea suddenly becomes clear.”.

Sussex Nobel winner’s ‘football’ molecule research listed in top 10 discoveries

Nobel Prize-winning research carried out by Professor Sir Harry Kroto at the University of Sussex has been named by fellow academics as one of the ten most important discoveries made by their peers at UK universities in the past 60 years.

A poll of UK academics placed Professor Kroto’s 1985 discovery of the microscopic “footballs” known as buckyballs tenth in a list topped by the discovery of DNA, the first computer, stem cell research, the contraceptive pill and the Internet.

The poll was carried out to mark Universities Week, which is to take place from 14-20 June. It placed the discovery of the structure of DNA (unveiled on 28 February 1953) ahead of other key UK university discoveries such as the computer, Dolly the Sheep and the contraceptive pill.

Professor Kroto and his US collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley revealed that carbon can exist as tiny spherical molecules, now known as fullerenes or buckyballs, a discovery that led to Professor Kroto being jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1996 for the discovery of the C60 molecule (Buckminsterfullerene – a new form of carbon).  The C60 molecule was created from 60 carbon atoms arranged in the same structure as a football.

The discovery of a whole family of carbon-cage molecules soon followed, collectively dubbed fullerenes after their similarity to the geodesic domes designed by the late Richard Buckminster Fuller. Fullerenes include football and rugby ball shapes and tubes of carbon, called nanotubes, which sparked the nanotech revolution.

The molecules are incredibly strong, and vary in shape from the prototype ball to rugby balls and tubes, known as nanotubes, which are about 100 times as strong as steel, but as light as the graphite in ordinary pencils – properties that make for endless practical applications.

Professor Kroto, who was invited to announce the poll results, said: “It surely comes as no surprise that DNA has come out top. It is not only pre-eminently important to understanding almost every fundamental aspect of life itself but it is also so beautiful and at the same time so simple in revealing how genetic characteristics are transmitted.

“Despite the fact that the discovery is over 50 years old, this finding is instrumental in every element of our lives and the basis of our understanding about life on Earth.

“This list demonstrates the outstanding level of achievement of research scientists in UK universities and their impact on our everyday lives. Even in another 60 years I hope that this list will inspire people to appreciate the contribution to human knowledge and well-being of researchers in our universities.  We have some of the world’s best researchers and must continue to value their work if we are to advance our understanding of the world and of what humans are capable.”

Professor Laurence Pearl, Head of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Sussex welcomed the inclusion of Professor Kroto’s work in the top 10 list. He said: “The discoveries cited in the list are pinnacles on the mountains of exciting and innovative research work carried out in universities and research Institutes by thousands of scientists.

“All these major successes came from asking basic questions and it would have been almost impossible to have predicted the significance of the outcomes, when the scientists responsible started to address their particular problem.

“We will only keep this level of achievement, and the economic prosperity it drives, if we continue to take chances and provide the financial support for curiosity driven research in our Universities.”