How to Have a Eureka Moment

Turns out, there is real science behind "aha moments."

In the ancient world, the Greeks believed that all great insights came from one of nine muses, divine sisters who brought inspiration to mere mortals. In the modern world, few people still believe in the muses, but we all still love to hear stories of sudden inspiration.

Like Newton and the apple, we’re eager to hear and to share stories about flashes of insight.

Eureka moments feel like flashes of insight because they often come out a period when the mind isn’t focused on the problem, what psychologists call a “period of incubation.”

Pullquote share icon. Share

Eureka moments feel like flashes of insight because they often come out a period when the mind isn’t focused.

Incubation is the stage where people briefly step back from their work. Some people juggle various projects at the same time under the belief that while their conscious mind is focusing on one project, the others are incubating in their unconscious.

Boosting creative insight

A team of researchers led by Sophie Ellwood found empirical evidence for power of incubation to boost creative insight. The researchers divided 90 undergraduate psychology students into three groups. Each group was tasked with completing an “alternate uses test,” which asks participants to list as many possible uses for common objects as they can imagine. In this case, the participants were told to list possible uses for a piece of paper.

The first group worked on the problem for four continuous minutes. The second group was interrupted after two minutes and asked to generate synonyms for each word from a given list (considered to be another task that exercised creativity), then given two more minutes to complete the original test.

Alchemists were early eureka moment adopters. [James Nasmyt Wellcome/CC BY 4.0]

The final group was interrupted after two minutes, given the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (considered an unrelated task), and then asked to continue working on the original alternate uses test for two more minutes. Regardless of the group, each participant was given the same amount of time (four minutes) to work on their list of possible uses for a sheet of paper.

The research team was then able to compare the creativity that resulted from continuous work, work with an incubation period where a related task was completed and work with an incubation period where an unrelated task was completed.

Making space for innovation

The researchers found that the group given a break to work on an unrelated task (the Myers-Briggs test) generated the most ideas, averaging 9.8 ideas.

Pullquote share icon. Share

Researchers found that the group given a break to work on an unrelated task generated the most ideas.

The group given a break to work on a related task placed second, averaging 7.6 ideas generated. The group given no break but four continuous minutes of work time generated the least possible uses, averaging 6.9 ideas. The research team had validated the idea that incubation periods, even those as brief as a few minutes, can significantly boost a person’s creative output.

One possible explanation for these findings is that when presented with complicated problems, the mind can often get stuck, finding itself tracing back through certain pathways of thinking again and again. When you work on a problem continuously, you can become fixated on previous solutions. You will just keep thinking of the same uses for that piece of paper instead of finding new possibilities.

Taking a break from the problem and focusing on something else entirely gives the mind some time to release its fixation on the same solutions and let the old pathways fade from memory.

Then when you return to the original problem your mind is more open to new possibilities – eureka moments.

This article originally appeared on Harvard Business Review and was republished with permission.

[Image: Apollo and the Muses/CC 2.0]

David Burkus is the author of “The Myths of Creativity: The Truth About How Innovative Companies and People Generate Great Ideas.”

Click the RSS icon to subscribe to future articles by this author. RSS Feed