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Eureka Hunt
July 30, 2008 12:40 PM   Subscribe

"That's why so many insights happen during warm showers."[pdf/html]
A print-only print-mostly article in last week's New Yorker magazine fascinatingly describes the neurological processes behind human insight, with nods to Henri Poincaré's omnibus eureka ("Having reached Coutances, we entered an omnibus to go some place or other. At the moment when I put my foot on the step the idea came to me, without anything in my former thoughts seeming to have paved the way for it") and Archimedes' bathtub eureka* ("Eureka!")
posted by jckll (33 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite

 
This was a fascinating article. It provoked for me a pretty serious philosophical question, though. One that the article doesn't even begin to consider, but should. What are the implications of a sudden flash of insight that is wrong? The article makes it sound as if the brain somehow penetrates its own internal contradictions, reconfigures available data, and comes to a new understanding of the world. This would imply that there was some way that a universal truth could show its impact in the neurochemistry of the brain, something that I think any reasonable person would dispute.

If this insight is not an objective truth being realized in the mind, then what is it? Is there a neurochemical distinction to be drawn between, say, mathematical insight and, maybe, emotional or interpersonal insight? And what are the brain mechanisms that fix a particular insight, giving it the impact of truth, and let other, trival reconfigurations of data pass by without much fuss?

A better author would have gone beyond simple reportage of what is, by any measure, a totally fascinating bit of science. I'd have liked to have seen some discussion of how communities sanctify individual insights, creating "truth" or its simulacrum, in the process. As it is, I left the article thinking not about the Mann Gulch fire, so ably discussed in Norman Maclean's Young Men and Fire, but about the recent work of another University of Chicago professor, Jonathan Lear. His Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation discusses precisely the sorts of sociological implications of paradigm shifting insight. I wonder if the scientists profiled in the NY'er piece have read the book. If not, they should. They'll be surprised to find that a psychoanalyst is a couple steps ahead of them, philosophically speaking.
posted by felix betachat at 1:03 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


It can be a two way street. One second your right on task and then. Years ago when I worked as a cook in a restaurant, I and the other cooks would repeatedly run into an unusual problem. Upon entering the walk-in cooler to retreive an item, we sometimes would immediately forget what it was that we were looking for.

After this phenomenon had happend enough times, we supposed that it could be due to the swift and extreme temperature change one would experience while walking into a refrigerated cooler.
posted by captainsohler at 1:03 PM on July 30, 2008


Better late than never:
The article also makes a nice parallel with the story of Wag Dodge[pdf/html]: Young Men & Fire.
posted by jckll at 1:09 PM on July 30, 2008


*html
posted by jckll at 1:10 PM on July 30, 2008


The Fuchsian functions are pretty, though the wikipedia page about them is very boring (more here)
posted by oonh at 1:12 PM on July 30, 2008


Jonah Lehrer, contributor to RadioLab, has a blog here: http://scienceblogs.com/cortex/
posted by mattbucher at 1:13 PM on July 30, 2008


This would imply that there was some way that a universal truth could show its impact in the neurochemistry of the brain, something that I think any reasonable person would dispute.

Or anyone who has discussed anything whilst stoned.
posted by three blind mice at 1:24 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


What are the implications of a sudden flash of insight that is wrong?

I think what separates people like Einstein and Edison from the rest of us, is that when they have a flash of sudden insight, they had the tools (mental or otherwise) to take advantage of it and/or put it to the test.

To use music composition as an analogy. I listen to music alot. I have ideas about songs, but I've never spent much time learning how to produce music. So I may have brilliant musical insights all the time, but I can't do anything about it. I have a friend that's been producing for 10 years, and when he gets an idea(even a mediocre one), he has a finished song in two weeks, and its in the hands of the label 2 days later. The difference is that he can take that idea and do something with it. I'm lucky if I can still remember the melody I was humming an hour later.

So, Poincaire has his conjecture on a bus, and because he had the years of mathematical training and practice behind it, he can check out the numbers when he gets home, and it happens to be right. The rest of us get to have eureka moments about how all the Quentin Tarentino movies are really just one big story. It just takes a trip to blockbuster to confirm that theory.
posted by empath at 1:30 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]


Or anyone who has discussed anything whilst stoned.

Ha! Yes. That's exactly what I was looking for. To state my point more succinctly, then, the issues of the neurochemistry of insight that the article brings up are actually pretty trivial, from a cultural standpoint. I mean, brain scientists are right to get excited about this, since it helps further our knowledge of the topography and dynamics of the mind. But in terms of actual insight, what is more interesting are the mechanisms which discipline a thinker to delay or inhibit trivial flashes of insight until the right one comes along. That is probably a much more complex process, but understanding it would get us closer to understanding what separates a Poincaré from a bong-sucker.
posted by felix betachat at 1:33 PM on July 30, 2008


(or, you know, what empath just said)
posted by felix betachat at 1:34 PM on July 30, 2008


What are the implications of a sudden flash of insight that is wrong?

If you want to see this happen over and over again, watch professional poker players on TV. A big part of poker is being faced with a big decision, and figuring out which option is correct. I know from experience that a lot of these decisions get made through "Aha!" moments, and I also know from experience that a lot of those decisions turn out to be incorrect.

I've done all kinds of activities that require these kinds of insights, such as writing mathematical proofs, writing computer programs, playing adventure/puzzle games, etc. In almost all cases, I go through these steps:
1. I create a mental model of how the game/program/system works.
2. I start simulating different possible actions that I could choose or start making different changes to the model.
3. Sometimes, out of nowhere, an idea pops into my head that is not a direct result of step 2. I have no idea how this works, but I assume it's the same "insight" behavior that the article is talking about.

In my opinion, my brain is using the model from the first step in some way that I'm not consciously aware. I think that's why language works the better than things like the physics problem in the study from the article, because everyone's native language is the most complicated model that they are gauranteed to have mapped out completely in their heads.

The reason why poker creates a lot of false positives is that most of the models that a poker players creates in his head are in some way flawed or approximate. For example, good poker players create a mental model of each opponent. That way they can think "Would she do that in this situation?" Of course it's impossible to have a completely accurate mental model of how someone thinks, so many times even if your brain comes up with a solution based on those models, there is a strong possiblity that it will be wrong. In a more well-defined system, like language, this isn't as much of a problem.
posted by burnmp3s at 1:36 PM on July 30, 2008


That's why Silicon Valley has the highest per capita concentration of hot tubs in the world.*

*Don't really know if this is true, but wouldn't it be funny if it was?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:36 PM on July 30, 2008


Here are is a pdf with a list of CRA puzzles and answers. I just move the window off the screen so I can't see the answers.
posted by stavrogin at 1:38 PM on July 30, 2008


Here are is a

Arr, I said that in my pirate voice, arrr.
posted by stavrogin at 1:39 PM on July 30, 2008


Well, 3BM / Felix B., they do say "Hallucinogenic drugs are thought to work largely by modulating the prefrontal cortex, tricking the brain into believing that its sensory delusions are revelations. People have the feeling of an insight but without the content."

I actually thought that was one of the more interesting bits in the article. We have hallucinations all the time--mirages, shadows, tricks of the light--but most of the time we just shrug them off. It makes a lot of sense to me that "hallucination" plus "intuition alarm" equals mind-blowingly new understanding of the universe.

Also, hey, I work with Dr. Jung-Beeman--that's so awesome! I mean, I knew his research was awesome, but it was also awesome to read an entire article, mostly about him, in the front of my New Yorker!
posted by Squid Voltaire at 3:18 PM on July 30, 2008


I think this is probably related to another intriguing and complex brain function: humor. Many people toss off extremely funny ad libs all the time, yet when they try to be funny in writing, it tanks. I just described myself. The difference seems to be the level of spontaneity - speaking for myself at least, writing demands focus and concentration and self-editing, which pretty much shuts down the wide-ranging free association that the right hemisphere performs. A lot of humor is based on incongruous associations, so I think the same mechanism might be at work in humor as in insight.

Furthermore, often the joke is as much of a surprise to me as to my audience - I don't hear it coming, so to speak, it just pops out of my mouth. Like an insight, the joke just flashes into existence without conscious preparation. It would be interesting to see if the same brain areas get activated before an ad lib joke (as opposed to telling a funny story from one's repertoire).

Those of you who've met me at meetups might wonder why the hell I describe myself as funny; I'm on my best behavior at meetups so I keep a lid on the humor. I want you guys to like me, after all.
posted by Quietgal at 3:33 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]


People have the feeling of an insight but without the content.

I'd buy that to an extent, except that there is pretty clear evidence of content. People don't just say they had a revelation on acid, but also are able to describe the revelations. Although there is a certain amount of ineffability to it. I think it might be more accurate to say that the feeling of insight is disproportionate to the actual content of the insight. Or that people perceive the mundane to be miraculous -- not just visually, but intellectually. Whether that's an empty revelation or not, I don't know.
posted by empath at 3:43 PM on July 30, 2008


I think this is probably related to another intriguing and complex brain function: humor. Many people toss off extremely funny ad libs all the time, yet when they try to be funny in writing, it tanks.

"You just had to be there"

Every once in a while, i just get into a mood to be funny, and I can crack up a room full of people. Nothing planned, but I can just riff on one thing after another and hit every time. But I can't bring it up on demand, usually I'm really quiet, so it kind of surprises people when they find out I'm funny, too.
posted by empath at 3:46 PM on July 30, 2008


burnmp3s: ... everyone's native language is the most complicated model that they are guaranteed to have mapped out completely in their heads.

I just wanted to say that I think that's an interesting perspective that I'd never considered before. So thanks for that.

Just to add my anecdotal personal-experience data to the mix, because empath's comment above got me to thinking: Very occasionally an Aha moment seems to come to me utterly out of the blue, and I couldn't tell you afterward to save my life how I arrived at it. But more often it feels like my subconscious has simply nailed together two or more known but seemingly disparate bits of info together under a magician's scarf, then whipped out a fully-formulated answer with a "ta-dah!" Is there a qualitative difference between the two experiences, or is it a matter of the magician sometimes being slower and clunkier than other times, allowing my conscious to say "I see what you did, there"? I don't know. Now that I've pondered it out loud, though, maybe I'll have an insight about it in the middle of the night tonight....
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:14 PM on July 30, 2008


The thought occurs that this may be related to why virtually every geek office has multiple toys available for playing with at weird times. Tech offices are known for breaking out in impromptu nerf wars, or folks might wander into the main room and play some Virtua Fighter or foosball or something.

I've never explicitly DISCUSSED why there are always toys, but there always are, and I wonder very strongly if this is related.

(it's also the case that the least successful tech enterprises I've seen have been the ones that were most serious, and had the fewest things to goof around with.)
posted by Malor at 4:14 PM on July 30, 2008


two or more known but seemingly disparate bits of info

Sorry, I meant to include "maybe even consciously forgotten" in there.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:17 PM on July 30, 2008


Fascinating article, thanks!

I always have a moment when I'm reading about the brain when I realize that my brain is processing information written about the brain - in essence, my brain is trying to understand how it works. And my head nearly explodes.

Your consciousness is verylimited in capacity,” Miller said, “andthat’s why your prefrontal cortex makes all these plans without telling you about it.

Y'know, I think it's really best this way because half of the plans that my brain does let me in on aren't very good ideas. Though it all seems so reasonable at the time.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 4:29 PM on July 30, 2008


well, it's gratifying to know that my right brain is still working, because i didn't even have to pause reading for a more than half a second to work out that candle problem.

how'd everybody else go? becoz "only four percent of people" probably translates into something like "at least 99% of metafilter".
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:51 PM on July 30, 2008


(i still can't make head or tail of New Yorker cartoons, though)
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:53 PM on July 30, 2008


"apple" was instantly obvious too. on a roll today! now, to turn this goldmine of insight onto something more work-related...
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:57 PM on July 30, 2008


Here are is a pdf with a list of CRA puzzles and answers.

Thank you, that was really fun! I must be in the relaxed state of mind mentioned in the article because I didn't get that frustrated.
posted by boy detective at 6:05 PM on July 30, 2008


When writing poems or making art, I'm often trying to think of ways to organize things as to have more creative insight. I know that being near a window when writing and frequently pausing to look out and daydream helps a lot. And I never feel too bothered by an occasional unplanned distraction from what I'm doing, for this same reason. So what the article says about letting your mind wander and not concentrating, makes sense.
posted by troubles at 6:17 PM on July 30, 2008


Don Norman called those "loss of activation errors"
posted by anthill at 6:25 PM on July 30, 2008


Related post.
posted by homunculus at 9:52 PM on July 30, 2008


empath : Or that people perceive the mundane to be miraculous -- not just visually, but intellectually. Whether that's an empty revelation or not, I don't know.

The mundane is miraculous - I think it's great to be able to apprehend that, at least temporarily. (Apprehending it all the time might be a bit of a problem, of course - you'd never get out of bed because of how transcendentally comfortable it is).
posted by Drexen at 4:53 AM on July 31, 2008



oh, cool.

I had always wondered why I had so many insightful, a-ha! moments when I take showers. I just thought it was me.
posted by fizzix at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2008


Yet another reason to bathe.
posted by TwelveTwo at 1:02 PM on July 31, 2008


People have the feeling of an insight but without the content.

I had a philosophy professor who described this perfectly in a story he told us. He had roommates who constantly took drugs and felt they had profound insights while high. He challenged them to write down their insights the next time they used the drugs. One night they followed his advice. After hours of scribbling on paper, lots of furiously intent writing and drawing, they produced a sheet of paper with a single coherent word: "Is" in large letters. Whoa. Deep, man.
posted by wastelands at 10:42 PM on July 31, 2008


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