How insightful breakthroughs happen, and why

6a0105369e3ea1970b0147e0c0f023970b 320wi - How insightful breakthroughs happen, and why Think back to the last brilliant moment you had.  You know the one:  first you were racking your brain trying to figure out a solution to a difficult problem, and the next moment it was like a bolt of lightning hit, and suddenly you were a genius. 

Problem solved.

These wonderful “Aha” moments often happen when we least expect it and when we need them the most.

Researchers Sascha Topolinski from the University of Würzburg, Germany, and Rolf Reber from the University of Bergen, Norway have proposed a new hypothesis that could explain the phenomenology of the ‘Aha’ moment.

Their theory is based on largely on French mathematician and physicist Jules Henri Poincare’s descriptions of the two main characteristics of the experience of insight:


  • Suddennes – this is when the idea or solution pops into you head unexpectedly and abruptly
  • Ease – once the idea or solution hits, you are able to work through the problem without any difficulty


Topolinski and Reber suggest that the two additional characteristics be added to the list.


  • Positive effect – You feel great about you new insight, not about the fact that you solved the problem but you feel good about the solution
  • Truth and confidence – After your insight you feel that the solution is true despite not having tested it.


To pull it all together, an insight is an experience that suddenly happens while we are trying to solve a challenging problem and in that moment we can work through it with ease, pleasure and confidence. At least this is their theory for now.

Studying insight may seem insignificant in relation to research that is working to solve issues of major illness or social crises but what they presented can be used as part of the foundation for future studies in motivation, behavior and creativity. Creativity is the source of solutions for problems in our society. Why not find out how and why we have “aha” moments that bring about brilliant ideas that may help to solve some of the most pressing problems of the time?  Consider an “aha” moment that saved millions of lives. Alexander Fleming had an insight will working on the influenza virus and that “aha” lead to the discovery of penicillin.

There has been also been a good amount of research that attempts to look at the physical signs of insight. Recent brain imaging studies haven’t been able to show why insight appears in the brain but, does offer an insight into the process. 

In a recent article, “The Aha! Moment: The Cognitive Neuroscience of Insight” researchers Mark Beeman and John Kounios found that neurologically, insight is the results of a series of events that happen outside of our conscious awareness that activate at different time periods across different brain regions.

Understanding insight may help us to discover ways to foster it. Beeman and Kounios also found that people are more likely to solve puzzles with sudden insight when they are in a positive mood. It’s as if that positive mood opens our minds, like opening the barn doors rather than just the windows. That clears the pathway for more ideas and innovation to flow through.

A recent New York Times article features additional studies on insight and its relationship with creativity. If you are interested, there even an assessment for insight. 

Test Your Insight

Insight has sparked the creation of beautiful and epic artistic pieces, technologies, medical and scientific breakthroughs. Understanding the “why” and “how” of insight may allow us to discover how we can better facilitate our own creative processes and hopefully solve many more puzzles of life.

— Makenna Berry

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