the eureka hunt

There was a comment in the FTD Support Forum mentioning an article about insight in the New Yorker. I managed to find a PDF of the article—I would’ve gone to the bookstore to buy it, but it was a bit late by the time I read about it—here is the link (PDF): The Eureka Hunt by Jonah Lehrer as published in the July 28 issue of the New Yorker.

Anyway, the article is about insight: where does it come from? How does it work? How do we suddenly just “see” a solution to a problem versus working through to the answer? Mark Jung-Beeman, a cognitive neuroscientist at Northwestern University, initially began studying the right hemisphere of the brain and became interested in insight during his research. From the article abstract:

“Jung-Beeman decided to compare word puzzles—or Compound Remote Associate Problems (C.R.A.)—solved in moments of insight with those solved by methodical testing. He teamed up with John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexler University, and they combined fMRI and EEG testing to scan people’s brains while they solved the puzzles. The resulting study, published in 2004, found that people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The suddenness of the insight is preceded by a burst of brain activity. ... the anterior superior temporal gyrus becomes unusually active in the second before the insight. Once the brain is sufficiently focused on the problem, the cortex needs to relax, to seek out the more remote association in the right hemisphere that will provide the insight.”


“The brain area responsible for recognizing insight is the prefrontal cortex. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at M.I.T., spent five years studying the prefrontal cortex. He was eventually able to show that it wasn’t simply an aggregator of information, but rather it was more like a conductor, waving its baton and directing the players. In 2001, Miller and Princeton neuroscientist Jonathan Cohen published an influential paper laying out their theory of how the prefrontal cortex controls the rest of the brain. It remains unclear how simple cells recognize what the conscious mind cannot. An insight is just a fleeting glimpse of the brain’s huge store of unknown knowledge.”

Kounios and Jung-Beeman found that

” ... people who solved puzzles with insight activated a specific subset of cortical areas. Although the answer seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mind was carefully preparing itself for the breakthrough. The first areas activated during the problem-solving process were those involved with executive control, like the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex. The scientists refer to this as the “preparatory phase,” since the brain is devoting its considerable computational power to the problem. The various sensory areas, like the visual cortex, go silent as the brain suppresses possible distractions.”

The executive function area of the brain keeps directing the search, looking through various areas of the brain such as speech and language centers, until, for example, you give up trying to find the answer or your work out the answer. But, once in a while, on the verge of giving up, the brain finds the answer, the insight, the “aha,” “Eureka,” “by Jove” moment when the answer is right there. Just before the insight, 300 milliseconds before, an area of the brain goes into overdrive: ” ... a small fold of tissue on the surface of the right hemisphere, the anterior superior temporal gyrus (aSTG), became unusually active in the second before the insight. The activation was sudden and intense, a surge of electricity leading to a rush of blood.” What the aSTG is or does or is supposed to do is still mostly unknown, but earlier studies suggested that this area is related to certain aspects of language comprehension ” ... such as the detection of literary themes and the interpretation of metaphors.” It appears that the right hemisphere of the brain is responsible for broader connections. Insight seems to work best when the brain is relaxed—during a shower, upon waking ... trying to get an insight, focusing on getting an insight, doesn’t usually work and actually inhibits insight. It appears that right brainers are more prone to flashes of insight while left brainers solve problems best through analysis. (Are you a right brainer or a left brainer? Here’s a test: The Right Brain vs Left Brain. This is a fascinating test—gotta ask Stanley about it, he probably saw this back in grad school days when he was studying cognitive psychology—I see her turning clockwise and can only see her reverse direction if I look at just a small part of her, like the foot.)

“The most mysterious aspect of insight is not the revelation itself but what happens next. The brain is an infinite library of associations, a cacophony of competing ideas, and yet, as soon as the right association appears, we know. The new thought, which is represented by that rush of gamma waves in the right hemisphere, immediately grabs our attention. There is something paradoxical and bizarre about this. On the one hand, an epiphany is a surprising event; we are startled by what we’ve just discovered. Some part of our brain, however, clearly isn’t surprised at all, which is why we are able to instantly recognize the insight. ‘As soon as the insight happens, it just seems so obvious,’ Schooler said. ‘People can’t believe they didn’t see it before.’ “The brain area responsible for this act of recognition is the prefrontal cortex, which lights up whenever people are shown the right answer—even if they haven’t come up with the answer themselves. Pressed tight against the bones of the forehead, the prefrontal cortex has undergone a dramatic expansion during human evolution, so that it now represents nearly a third of the brain. While this area is often associated with the most specialized aspects of human cognition, such as abstract reasoning, it also plays a critical role in the insight process.

There’s more, definitely worth reading, especially the section on the prefrontal cortex. It is helping to make it clearer to me why fronto-temporal dementia (FTD) (and all the variants) manifests the way it does, or is starting to make it clearer. I have to read it again. It’s kind of like the prefrontal cortex is the conductor of the orchestra that is your brain is forgetting the music, so is getting less and less able to direct the players. I have to think about this some more. So many questions ...

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