How the brain produces Aha! moments

Posted by Harry Mills on 21 November 2017 | Comments

In the 1990’s, neuroscientists had begun using functional magnetic imaging or fMRI machines to scan the brain. fMRI is related to the ordinary MRI that your doctor uses except fMRI maps brain activities detecting changes in blood flow. 

Since the mid 1990’s Mark Beeman, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, had been studying moments of insight. The problem was insights happened too fast for fMRI machines to detect.

So Mark Beeman teamed up with John Kounios at Drexel University, who was using EEG or electroencephalography to measure waves of electricity produced by the brain. 

By using both fMRI and EEG, Beeman and Kounios were able to observe the mental shift that comes with an Aha! moment. Approximately 30 seconds before the answer emerges, there is a spike in gamma waves.

In 2004, Beeman and Kounios published the first brain pictures of an Aha! moment. The problem was that brain scans are extraordinarily difficult to interpret. Even skilled neuroscientists struggle.

Rock's four faces of insight 
In 2006, Australian David Rock, an expert on the link between leadership and neuroscience, translated the brain research on insights into a series of pictures that actually showed what happened to someone’s face before, during and after an insight. 



Face One: Impasse - When people first become aware of a problem or dilemma they look unhappy and perplexed. Our eyes might squint. We know we have a problem. We feel stuck.

Face Two: Reflection - When a person begins to reflect on the problem, their face changes. “Most people look up or slightly across and get a dazed look on their face. Their mouth might tense up as they think more deeply. Nearly everyone becomes very silent for a moment.”

Face Three: Insight - When we solve a problem, the flash of blinding energy we call an Aha! causes the face to light up. The answer seems obvious. We blurt out, “Aha! I see!” At the moment of insight the brain releases strong gamma-band waves. We experience an adrenaline high. The rush of energy is caused by the brain making new connections, forming a new mental map.

Face Four: Motivation - “When people are in the motivation phase,” writes Rock, “their eyes are racing ahead, ready to take action” 

Rock’s four faces of insights show aspiring Aha! led sellers what to look for on a prospect’s face when they use an Aha! insight.