Where Bright Ideas Come From

April 29th, 2009 | Sources: Economist, J. Cognitive Neuroscience


When scientists showed that images of nearly nude females triggered alterations in cerebral blood flow and certain behaviors that were not entirely under the conscious control of males, some just shrugged.

What could be more obvious?

thisisworsethantrigBut the link between conscious and unconscious thought remains a hot topic among neurobiologists, even when sexual desire is not involved.

Joydeep Bhattacharya of Goldsmiths’ College in London and Bhavin Sheth of the University of Houston recently demonstrated that insight itself, the eureka moment when one reaches a breakthrough solution to a problem, is generated unconsciously before one becomes aware she’s solved it.  

The remarkable findings appear in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The scientists affixed electroencephalographs to 18 adults and then challenged them with a brain-teaser that required just such a flash of insight to solve.

The problem was that there are 3 light switches on the ground-floor of a house, 2 of which do nothing while the third controls a light bulb on the second floor. The bulb is off at the start. Determine which switch is operational while making only one trip to the second floor.

Each EEG-wired subject was given 90 seconds to solve the puzzle, at which point a hint was provided. The hint was to turn one switch on for a good while before turning it off.

allheatnolightSome subjects solved it, some did not. What was interesting though was data from the EEG could be used to differentiate the insightful few from the rest of us.

Only the former exhibited increased gamma wave activity in the right frontal cortex.

And the knock-your-socks off corollary was that the gamma wave activity was observed up to eight seconds before the subject had the “aha!” moment. 

The scientists concluded that conscious thought isn’t responsible for problem-solving and insight. Unconscious processing does that. The person becomes aware she’s solved the problem long after she actually solved it.

The insight, as my wife was only too pleased to explain to me, is that during that single, precious visit to the second floor, the subject can assess not only whether the light was on but whether it had been warmed as a result of previous, extended use.


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